Archive for March, 1998

Stephen Mosher

March 22, 1998

For more than four years, Stephen Mosher, 33, has been putting together what has come to be known as The Sweater Book. While the book is near completion, he does not have a publisher signed to ensure production. Throughout his adventure he has met hundreds of celebrities and photographed them all in an effort to produce a coffee table book with proceeds to go to AIDS charities.

Born in Texas, Stephen Mosher is from a “Hollywood family.” On his mother’s side, his grandparents worked for motion picture companies. His father, a marine, met his mother while on leave in Los Angeles. The two fell hopelessly in love and Stephen’s father went to work for Dunn & Bradstreet. While working his way up the corporate ladder, Stephen’s father was transferred to several different countries throughout his childhood. It was at a small private school in Switzerland where Stephen picked up his first camera.

Because the school historically graduated about ten students, they never produced a year book. Determined to provide her children with memories of their teenage school days, Stephen’s mother organized the first ever yearbook. “One day she picked up her Yashica and said ‘Here, go to school and take pictures of everything; kids playing volleyball, kids going to art class, and kids playing soccer. Take pictures of anything you can.” Ever since, Stephen has been recording the lives of his friends and his surroundings. This hobby would eventually lead him to the creation of The Sweater Book. “Because I was taking pictures in high school and while I was in college taking pictures of my friends rehearsing plays, I kept getting better and better at figuring out how the camera worked.”

Stephen returned to Texas to attend college where he majored in acting. “Since I was six years old, all I wanted to be was a movie star. I didn’t care about being an actor. I wanted to be a movie star. Well, there’s not much practice in Switzerland for being a movie star or even an actor.” When Stephen arrived back to the states he did some college theater but it didn’t take him long to figure out that acting was not for him. “I love the art of acting, I love the theater. I love actors but there is so much drama off the stage. There’s so much negativity, I want a calm life.”

Stephen took to photography. He ran a studio from his home during the day, while house managing for the Dallas Theater Center at night. Evera patron of the arts, Stephen took headshots and publicity stills and remained involved with a lot of actor friends. One day, a fledging actress and close friend, Amy Raynes came over to have their headshots taken. A pale girl with blonde hair, she arrived wearing a pink turtle neck sweater. Stephen, worried that the pictures would render Amy a ghost, offered her his black speckled sweater for the duration of the shoot.

Within the next six months several other actors came for photo shoots and Stephen offered them the same sweater. “I was one day looking at these pictures going ‘You know they’re all wearing the same article of clothing. I’ve lit them the same way. It’s all essentially the same picture.’ But, what you look at is right here (pointing to a face.) It’s them, their personality, what they when they put the sweater on. Did they push up the sleeves or roll up the sleeves, button it, throw it over their shoulders, leave it unbuttoned or tie it around their waist? How did people where the sweater?

For fun, Stephen began throwing parties and taking pictures of everyone in the same black cardigan sweater. “We had this courtyard outside the apartment and I set up the lights in the trees. I set up a backdrop and as the guests arrived I would say ‘here, have your picture taken’ and I would give them the sweater.” The collection of sweater pictures ran all the way around the kitchen. People would admire them, often without noticing their connection.

Stephen eventually grew tired of the project and decided to stop shooting sweater pictures. Some close friends of Stephen’s protested his decision and yet others called asking him mto take their picture before he concluded the series. His friend, Jane Titus, brought the idea of doing a book to Stephen. Initially, he rejected the idea feeling that the collection was “just pictures of my friends.”

In 1992, Elizabeth Taylor won the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Oscars ceremony for her humanitarian work with AIDS patients. In her acceptance speech, she said, “We all have to do what we can to fight the pandemic of AIDS.” This one experience synthesized two ideas in Stephen’s mind. “If we could get Elizabeth Taylor to wear the sweater we could do the book and really make some money.” And, with that money, be able to give to AIDS charities.

Already, Stephen had plans in motion to move to New York City. While preparing for the move, he and Pat, “his partner in crime and in life,” developed an invitation to present to celebrities telling about the book and offering them a chance to participate. Stephen initially contacted people who were currently acting on Broadway. From working in a theater, Stephen knew that by dropping an envelope at the stage door it would be forwarded directly to the actors and actresses. Out of the first thirty letters sent he received twelve rejections. The rest did not respond. About four months later he moved to New York and again started sending invitations to Broadway. Just before Thanksgiving, Raphael Sbarge who was in Twilight of the Golds said he would do it. “And then it was like the shampoo commercial. He told two friends, and I’m willing to cut the collection back because I know that it will be a big hit and we can go to volume two.”

The book became a hit on Broadway. Soon celebrities of television, film, acting and even photography became interested in the project just by word of mouth. “Sometimes when I’m having a really bad day, I open the book and say I photographed Whoopi Goldberg, Swoosie Kurtz is my friend and I’m just a boy from Texas, you know.” In total, the book is over 200 pages and includes stars from every genre of entertainment. Some of the television stars include; cast members from Frazier, Part of Five, The Highlander, Star Trek, Dr. Who, Sisters, Cybil, The Nanny, My So Called Life, Golden Girls, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Caroline in the City. Also included are familiar faces from stage and the world of fashion.Seemingly, Stephen has photographed everyone but he refuses to call the book complete. “If I stopped taking pictures now, there is no telling who could come next. I may never get a chance to draw on such a wide range of people.” And, there is still an existing wish list that includes; Annette Bening, Angela Lansberry, Bernadette Peters and Barbara Streisand. Even with the star-studded cast, Stephen included in the collection some of his friends, and some lesser-known actors, singers, dancers and writers. “I wanted this book to be about people, not necessarily famous people. I love famous people, but I just love people.”
The entire book is in black and white and shot mostly with Kodak T-Max film. “I do prefer black and white. I like color, I shoot color, but I prefer black and white. When you look at a color picture, the color distracts your eye from what you should be looking at.” While his apartment is decorated with stacks of books on photography, Stephen was never formally trained in art. He did take a one-semester class in high school on printing pictures, but upon learning he was allergic to the chemicals, Stephen turned to labs for finishing. In particular, Frank Perez of Duggal has assisted Stephen in getting the quality images he desired for The Sweater Book. “(The pictures account for) at least fifty-percent of the success here.”

Stephen shoots with the style of an old fashioned photographer. His main camera friend named “Maximillion.” This Minolta X700 has been with Stephen for twelve years, and while he admits he would like a new 35mm, old habits die hard. “I am not a technician. Ask me how a camera works and I don’t know…but when I pick up “Maximillion,” I think the camera understands what I want.

A typical shoot is done as the subject pleases. Stephen is indifferent to shooting in his home or on location. “I believe the key to a good photograph is the comfort level. I have a very metaphysical approach. I make it all about the person in fron of the camera, that’s all that’s important to me.” Stephen treats his subjects like customers and provides excellent service. “The thing about the sweater collection is that the subject really gets to call all the shots. They get to decide where they’re photographed, if they wear the sweater, and if anyone is in the picture with them.” All of the individual details are what distinguishes the pictures from one another. Subjects bring their own personality to the surface. “The talent that I think I have is in making the person in front of the camera comfortable so that the picture we get is for real.”
Every shoot has a story, the conclusion of which is a picture that appears in The Sweater Book. There was a three-hour at home shoot with Swoosie Kurtz, missing the shoot with Joan Rivers because of Los Angeles traffic, standing waist high in water with David Conrad, and sharing funny bathroom stories with Janeane Garofalo. Some of the bonds Stephen has formed transcend the work in the book and have evolved into friendships. When he was having trouble deciding formats, Stephen turned to David Hyde-Pierce. For one of the proudest moments in his life, Stephen remembers taking Dame Maggie Smith’s picture.While The Sweater Book project is far from over, Stephen is actively planning his future. There are at least six more book ideas brewing. “I’ll actually be ready to move on to my next project, which will be color portraits of actresses who played TV moms in their favorite room at home. It will be a benefit (to eliminate) women’s cancer.” Stephen has initiated the invitation process for the TV moms and several have already agreed. Stephen plans that all of his projects will work with portraiture and donate proceeds to different charities. Besides the TV moms, he is considering a book on anatomical landscapes to benefit the Christopher Reeve foundation for spinal cord research.
Stephen has grand plans for a man working without a contract, having no current book deal and no monies up front. “It’s really hard continuing work on a project that is milking your savings account when you don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s really hard getting people to commit to a project when you don’t know if it is going to come to fruition.” Stephen has the emotional and financial support of Pat in all of his endeavors. Besides, Stephen considers these only minor setbacks in the big picture. “One year, two years, four years, five years, death; it doesn’t matter as long as the book is done…the way I want it done.”