March 29, 2011

Behind the Book: Knitting nirvana

Behind the Book by
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"Like this?"

"No, too styled."

Too styled? I thought that was our mission: "styling" the handknits for the photographs that are to go into our book, Mason-Dixon Knitting: The Curious Knitters’ Guide.

We are in the kitchen of a Victorian house in the Catskills, hunkered around a knitted dishcloth, seeking to capture its soul. There are five of us: Steve Gross, a distinguished architectural photographer who has in a weak moment agreed to shoot our book for us; Sue Daley, his partner who is a gifted stylist; my co-author, Kay Gardiner; my sister-in-law Mary Neal Meador; and me. The kitchen is crammed with laundry baskets filled with stuff we are going to photograph for the book, including the baby burp cloths which are still not finished. Steve’s equipment is a tangle of cables, cases and shiny umbrellas that look like leftovers from a moon mission. It’s not obvious to me how this is going to go.

When we decided to write a book about knitting, Kay and I had a clear vision of what we wanted to create. Ours would be the knitting book we always wished we could find. It would have stories, a wide variety of cool patterns, and most of all, glorious, lush photographs which convey the warm-hearted wonderfulness of handknits. As we worked on the book, certain elements fell into place. Patterns: check. Stories: check. But the photography? Yikes! It loomed like a soul-sucking black hole. We knew nothing about photography. At some point we knew we had to start the photography process, but the word Hindenburg lurked in my mind. There was no way the photographs could come together. We avoided setting a schedule for the shoots. Maybe MAGIC would happen and some beautiful pictures would turn up.


Well, it really was magic. It was like when Penn and Teller explain the trick to you, then do the trick again and you still don’t know how they did it.

We first met Steve and Sue in their Manhattan studio, which looked like Hollywood’s idea of a photographer’s loft: industrial, high-ceilinged, with a huge light table in an otherwise empty room. It seemed impossible that these people would want to work on a knitting book. Surely they were too busy being cool. But they kept talking to us, and they never blinked when we said we would be photographing homely handknits like bath mats and baby bibs. We could not believe our good fortune.

Steve told that us that on a good day, they take 10 shots. This seemed ridiculously slow to us, who rou-tinely take a zillion (blurry) (ill-framed) shots of a sleeve when we’re writing about a knitting project on our blog, Snipsnap let’s get it to it, we thought.

But months later, now that we’re huddled around that dishcloth, debating whether soap bubbles will photograph well, worrying whether the dishcloth looks sincere enough, I begin to wonder if we will get one shot a day.

We move on. We wander through the house, figuring out where to shoot each item. Steve and Sue communicate at some frequency only dogs can hear. We conclude that they can read each other’s mind. They go 10 minutes without a word, in the tiniest attic bedroom of this rambling old house, climbing into the closet to get the right angle, futzing with the lighting in order to photograph a blanket casually draped around a bedpost. The dozens of black flies swarming in the window behind the bed worry us—a bit too much plague. Steve doesn’t seem concerned.

Kay constantly works on the baby burp cloths. Mary Neal presses hand towels. Never have I felt less necessary.

At intervals Steve lets me look through his lens. From its well-used appearance, his Hasselblad has clearly taken a million photographs, but to me, the small, square image is the freshest thing I have ever seen.

Piece by piece, Steve and Sue transform our baskets of precious, lumpy handknits into one lovely still life after another. Not only do Steve and Sue seem to communicate in some secret code, they also understand instinctively how we want the photographs to feel.

We traveled to four locations with Steve and Sue: the Catskills house, Kay’s apartment, a Manhattan townhouse and a house in Southampton. Today, as I flip through the finished book, seeing all these places lurking in the background, I marvel at the way Steve and Sue created a single mood for these photographs. We cared desperately about the way these pictures ought to look, yet we had no idea how to do it. It was an education to watch Steve and Sue make it happen so easily, and with so few words.

An education, and a relief. The black flies? They vanished in a perfect exposure of bright light from the window. As for the dishcloth? Its humble, tender soul is caught on film, right there on page 19.

A former editor of BookPage, Ann Shayne rediscovered her love of knitting when she left the workplace to stay at home with her two young children. She met her co-author, Kay Gardiner, on a knitting message board in 2002, and the two began an e-mail correspondence that led to the popular blog.


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