What's New on the Rialto
Stephen Mosher and
The Sweater Book
Interview by Jonathan Frank
Jonathan: Welcome to Talkin' Broadway. Stephen. What started the knitting together of The Sweater Book?
Stephen:: I didn't knit the sweater! I bought it at Mervyns ... (laughs). It was a $30 sweater made completely from acrylic ... very warm and cozy.
JF: Which is why kept its shape for such a long time and for so many photos ...
SM: That's true. And whatever homeless person is wearing it right now is probably very warm!
JF: You didn't keep the sweater?
SM: I lost the sweater after a photo shoot in 1998, so the last picture for the book was taken that year.
JF: What was its inspiration for the book?
SM: Elizabeth Taylor. I was watching the Academy Awards the year they gave her the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for her work on the AIDS crisis. In her acceptance speech she said that we all have to do what we can to fight the pandemic of AIDS. And shortly before that, my friend Jane Titus mentioned that I needed to do a gallery showing or make a book of all the sweater pictures I had.
JF: So you had started taking pictures before the thought of an AIDS benefit book had crossed your mind?
SM: I had 150 pictures of my friends back in Texas wearing the sweater. But I thought if I could get Elizabeth Taylor and some other famous people to wear the sweater, we could put together a really good book, which could make some money that could given to various AIDS charities. So I wrote to Bernadette Peters, Julie Andrews, Madeline Kahn and Jane Alexander, without success.
JF: Who was the first celebrity to say yes, then?
SM: The first household name was Kathleen Turner. We had already shot a lot of pictures of people from ... I hate the whole 'A-list, B-list, C-list' labeling of people, but after we shot Kathleen Turner the 'A-list' people came on.
JF: What made you start taking pictures of your friends in the sweater?
SM: I had taken a series of headshot pictures for people who brought clothing that wouldn't photograph well. And since I had this sweater literally on my back at the time, I would have them wear it instead.
JF: How many pictures did you take for the book?
SM: I can't give you the exact number, because I have never been able to count that high, but there are approximately 900 sweater pictures.
JF: I love the fact that you have such a fascinating mix of people in the book. You have cabaret performers like Nancy LaMott and Andrea Marcovicci pages away from pop singers like Helen Reddy and theatrical performers like George Hearn and Heather Headley and Anthony Sher. You've got Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan on the page after Bob Mackie. You have people from the casts of Star Trek, ER, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Touched by and Angel, and even a few pages devoted to photos of composers like Andrew Lippa, Frank Wildhorn, John Bucchino and Jerry Herman. You just cover the entire entertainment gamut.
SM: That's because I am an entertainment industry whore; I love it all. I love actors, singers, dancers, songwriters, designers ... I took a scattershot approach to my invitations - if it was somebody whose work I admired and they said yes, it's in the book. If they said no ... well, we don't talk about it! I tried desperately to get some sports figures and people from the country music industry to be in the book, but had no luck.
JF: Who was the most surprising person to say yes?
SM: Maggie Smith. There are two, actually. I didn't think I would be able to get a picture of either Maggie Smith or Sela Ward but both happened. When I photographed Sela, she was probably one of the most popular television actresses of the time, thanks to Sisters. A lot of the people who said yes surprised me. Glenn Close, Whoopi Goldberg, and Carol Burnett all surprised me by saying yes, but I never thought I would ever get a picture of Maggie Smith or Sela Ward.
JF: Who was the loveliest person with whom you worked?
SM: Carol Burnett. If I were to make a list of the top five nicest people to work with, Carol Burnett would be number one.
JF: Now it's time for the inevitable follow-up question: who was the most horrific person you had to deal with?
SM: Oh Jonathan ... there is nobody in the book that gave me any trouble ...
JF: The negatives mysteriously disappeared from those shoots, eh?
Is there anyone who "got away," due to logistics or other problems?
SM: There are a few that break my heart. I traded telephone calls with Gwen Verdon, who died before I could take her pictures. Also in that category is the great Nancy Marchand.
JF: There are so many pictures in the book that show incredible personality and whimsy. Who came up with the ideas, you or the subject?
SM: Every picture, except for maybe three of them, are what the person in front of the camera came up with. I didn't want to direct the shoot, I wanted their personalities to come through.
JF: It's amazing how many used the sweater as a straightjacket ... I'm sure a psychologist would have a field day with that.
SM: The personalities of the people in the 'straightjacket' are reflected, whether it's a person doing it out of humor, like Lily Tomlin, or somebody doing it because they are crazy ... and I won't name names there ... but the person mentioned that if the make-up crew from her TV show could have seen her then ...
JF: I love the before and after pictures you took of Charles Busch. I don't think I've ever seen a picture of him au natural, so to speak, sans make-up.
SM: Charles Busch is such a nice man. I went to his house and did the picture of him without the make-up, then he went away and came back fifteen minutes later in full make-up. I took the picture and said, "We're done!" because I like to keep the shoots short so the subject won't be inconvenienced. And he said, "Oh no, we're not done! I just put on all this make-up ... do you have more film?"
JF: The proceeds from The Sweater Book go to what charities?
SM: I'm giving away two-thirds of the money that would come to me from the sale of this book to two charities: Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and Cassidy's Place.
JF: Now that The Sweater Book is finished and out, do you have any other projects in the work?
SM: I'm currently working on six new photography books, which might be bigger or smaller in scope when compared to The Sweater Book that will also be used to raise money for charities that I believe in. I'm going to be doing a signing for The Sweater Book in Dallas on November 29th at Crossroads Market. And we're working on one in Los Angeles.
For more information on The Sweater Book or Stephen Mosher, visit his website at www.stephenmosher.com. The Sweater Book (Thomas Dunne Books, publisher) can be purchased at Amazon.com or though Broadway Cares.
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