Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Cyndi Stivers Testimonial

Theo loved sending jokey Christmas cards each year, starring herself; this was a compilation of several previous years.

I met Theo when I was a cub reporter at LIFE magazine in 1982. Before I got the job, seeing her credit, I thought Theo was a man—a common error, as it turned out. I was delighted to find out that not only was she one of LIFE's few female contract photographers, she was also young and fun and a great girlfriend to travel with. For months, I had heard hilarious tales from my colleague Nancy Griffin, who'd been assigned with Theo to stories on the Police, Van Halen, and Debra Winger. (The before-and-after shots of Van Halen's hotel room were classic!) Finally, I got my turn to work with Theo, traveling with her to Paris for the very enjoyable shoot of what turned out to be a dismal movie: Cheech & Chong's The Corsican Brothers (1984). Theo and I dined at La Coupole with Edie McClurg (who later stole all her scenes in Ferris Bueller's Day Off) and shopped the Marais with Rae Dawn and Robbi Chong. Rae Dawn came to Theo's memorial last spring—just one example of a friendship that endured long after the stories were finished.

Another time, we hit the drag races, first in Montreal and then in New Jersey, for a profile of the original speed queen, Shirley Muldowney, whose record-breaking life was being turned into a movie called Heart Like a Wheel (1983). Shirley was portrayed by Bonnie Bedelia, a superb actress whose nephew, Macaulay Culkin, turned out to be the famous one in the family. The best part about this assignment was that after we finished shooting at Raceway Park in Englishtown, NJ, we drove to my father's farm in Pittstown, where Theo would spend several happy Thanksgivings as an honorary member of our family.

Over the years, we spoke a lot about the fact that she had been adopted. For most of the '80s and '90s, she was not tempted to search for her birth mother, fearing that it would seem in some way disrespectful to the Westenbergers, whom she adored. But she remained open and curious, and I do think her unknown origins helped make her a wonderful photographer: She was always trying on others' lives for size as if they might have been hers. Theo defined herself by her work—and many of her dear friends were people she met on the job but kept around her, as her family of choice. I feel so fortunate that I got to be one of them.

I'm not sure how I acquired this shot of Theo as a little girl, but I love it, because it foreshadows the incredible rigor and precision underpinning her work. Once she started shooting pictures, it always felt like a party, but like many artists, she fretted and agonized and obsessed over the technical details beforehand. Of course she really knew her stuff, and she always kept that anxiety well hidden from her subjects. As soon as they showed up, it was all joy...and Theo was so playful, she brought out the best in even those who were jaded about the process (myriad movie stars) or uncomfortable posing; indeed, she made many a stiff mogul look congenial on the cover of the late, lamented Manhattan, inc. magazine. She also loved capturing dreamy landscapes. But to me, her most distinctive shots reveal her quirky humor and contagious enthusiasm, whether chronicling a twins convention or peering into a closet at row upon row of Imelda Marcos's shoes.

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