Meeting Martha Graham (and what the famous owe us)

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 8.34.38 AMAs best I can remember, it was probably December 1989 when I found out that Martha Graham’s dance company would be coming to my university, Ohio State, in Columbus, Ohio, to perform in the new Wexner Arts Center.

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The Wexner Center at Ohio State University

The school was proud of this collage of brick and white metal beams that criss-crossed at angles. It was supposed to be a piece of avant garde architecture to put Columbus, Ohio on the cultural map. Les Wexner, owner of The Limited stores, had donated a huge sum to the school to make it possible.

I had a position on the university paper as a photographer and spoke to someone who was organizing the event over the phone. I met him in person and he provided me with two tickets to the show and a press pass for the afterward events.

He asked me to comply with one condition: no pictures of Martha without her permission. He said she had this Egyptian image that she wished to maintain. “It’s all fake–just an image?” I thought. As part of the deal, I gave him my word.

I was in love with that picture of her with her palm just above her forehead. I wanted to make my own updated portrait.

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“Letter to the World”

I knew she was in her nineties, and this would be my chance to make something for the world to see, much like the photograph that Edward Steichen made of Alfred Stieglitz a few years before he died.

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Alfred Stieglitz, by Edward Steichen

I took a date with me to see the dance performance. My date had to leave when it was over. With my press pass, I was invited to a celebratory dinner. I went backstage and down the escalator.

Columbus, Ohio’s elite were dressed in their finest as wine and appetizers were being served. The same guy who gave me the press pass accompanied and assisted Martha Graham. I knew she was extremely old, but I hadn’t been ready, since I still had the image from “Letter to the World” in my mind. Her lower jaw stuck out in an exaggerated underbite and her dark makeup emphasized her bony features. I was twenty-one years old, and to me she looked like she was sitting up from her coffin half-dead. I was so used to staring at the picture of her, where she couldn’t look back. She glared back at me to show she didn’t appreciate the way I was looking at her. Oops!

Columbus, Ohio, at least back then, was like a small town, though it has around a million people. And like any small town, it had its village characters. There was a line of well wishers there to chat with her, and I spotted a woman who was well-known on campus. Talking to her immediately showed her intelligence. She had a PhD in cinema. But she also suffered from schizophrenia, so her intelligent conversation could suddenly turn to talk about extra-terrestrials watching us. She was saying something to Martha in her ear. It was clear from her body language that she meant well and came to her as a friend, but the look on Martha’s face also showed exhaustion–it was clear that whatever this woman was telling her had turned into something absolutely crazy. I felt bad for her to have to meet some of our crazy locals.

Then she said something to all of us there, thanking everyone. There were other press photographers standing next to me taking pictures.

“I promised not to take pictures, unless I get permission from her,” I said to a guy standing next to me.

“I’m taking pictures now. Looks like that’s going to have to be ok,” he said.

I wanted to make sure my word was worth something. And I was going to make my portrait that would be better than the current setting. Instead, I turned around and snapped pictures of the crowd, that included the elite from Columbus, press members and company dancers.

Then I sat and had dinner with some of the dancers.

“I’m just discovering that photographers are the scum of the Earth,” I said to one woman sitting at the table.

“A lot of them,” she replied.

When Martha Graham was leaving the room, I went with her and the guy who gave me tickets. The three of us were in the elevator.

“I’d like to make a picture of her,” I said to him, in front of her.

“She’s old!” he said.

I looked at her as if to tell her she looks ok. She looked back. I left the elevator and the two of them went on their way.

Back at the dinner table with the dancers, I told one of them how I would like to make a portrait of Martha. She said I should talk to her, and she might like that. I said that I would.

As they were all leaving, I remember a guy from my table taking a last swig of red wine before turning in. I snapped a picture of him and got his name, which I can no longer remember.

I also had a pass for a performance the next morning. I would get my picture then.

In the morning, before I left for the performance, my father called me from the suburb of Toledo where I grew up, two and a half hours away, to tell me my mother was in the intensive care ward of the hospital with pneumonia, that she came close to dying during the night and that I should come quickly to see her.

I was ready to start driving, but I went to the performance to get a picture before I left, since I knew my mom would be so proud and so happy that it would help her recover.

I went backstage and spoke with a guy who was probably only a little older than I was and I told him with a smile that I was with my school paper and wanted to make a really nice picture of Martha Graham. He said that she wasn’t there yet but would be there soon. Then he would ask for me.

He said I could have a seat and watch the performance while I waited. I wasn’t sure if I could do that–I kept trying to balance the waiting time versus seeing my mom. But I figured I could wait a little.

When she was due to be there, the guy came to me and told me she was on her way but had trouble in traffic, and he gave me a revised time estimate. I said “ok,” hoping it wouldn’t be much longer.

Again, when it was about time for her to be there, he told me she was still running late. I had to gauge whether I could still wait and said “ok.” I wasn’t sure whether I should leave. I wasn’t sure if I would see my mom again, but I also hoped getting this picture might help save her.

Finally, the assistant came to me and told me that her answer was “no.”

After waiting for so long and risking never seeing my mother again, I was furious. I went to the payphone backstage and made a call to the paper before leaving. As I stood on the phone, Martha was walking by.

In that moment, I was full of rage and looked straight at her, thinking, “It should be you instead of my mother!” She looked afraid of me. Then I tried to calm down and just looked at her thinking, “you’re a pathetic, old woman,” starting to feel sorry for her at the same time.

Then I made the two and half hour drive to the hospital where my mom was. She was recovering. I stuck to telling all the amazing stories I had to tell and about the evening I had before. I left the part about not getting the picture out.

Some months later, after my Mom had fully recovered, I told her the full story, and she asked me why I didn’t leave right away. She was a bit upset with me when I told her I tried to get the picture before leaving, that I thought it would make her proud and help her recovery.

Over time I changed how I viewed what happened with Martha Graham. Are famous people obligated to cure the sick or raise the dead? Do we put too much on them, simply because we like something they do? I remembered one of the essays from my Ethics class about a famous violinist and abortion, but I turned it around and thought about whether we are expecting too much from the violinist.

After a little more than a year, I saw in the New York times that Martha Graham had died, of pneumonia, after traveling with her company China. I said “I killed her,” to someone I knew and she laughed, assuring me I was absurd, but I couldn’t help from feeling guilty for the way I looked at her and what I was thinking and when she walked past me. Although, if I had been given a chance to sit and chat with her, I would have told her not to go to China–my grandma had trouble with pneumonia and her doctors had told her not to travel to China because of the dust.

As far as famous people and what people expect from them, I think we live in a time where people are extremely preoccupied with fame. People can be famous for being extremely stupid, and that is not the sort of fame I would ever want.

Many people do something, such as performing, and when they perform, they belong to us. They share a part of themselves with us. That is one of the beautiful parts of the aesthetic experience. However, I think there have to be limits from both sides. Sometimes famous people expect too many perks and sometimes people infringe on famous people, virtually, if not literally, ripping at their clothes, when they are no longer performing for us.

Living in New York, I’ve seen and spoken with a few famous people. What I’ve noticed is that some of them, unfortunately, suffer from social anxiety and awkwardness, perhaps from being deprived so long from “normal” social interaction. A lot of “normal” people want to be famous, but a lot of the famous people and their families crave normalcy, even if they want to enjoy some their perks.

Some time after my experience with Martha Graham, I became aware how complicit most of the news media are in perpetuating the myths of famous people, on behalf of their their surrounding organizations. I had hoped the Internet would be the great equalizer, in clearing through some of the misinformation we receive, sometimes about crucial issues, but I see unchecked misinformation circulating more efficiently through the Internet. And I’ve seen how people have been able to threaten people or hack into their privacy–it’s become a revolution I want no part of. But that’s another story.

As to why she said “no,” maybe the way I stared at her didn’t help make her feel comfortable with that idea. Maybe she didn’t want people to remember her the way she looked at that age. Maybe she preferred people to remember her by “Letter to the World.”

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