Saturday, February 02, 2008

Mister Rogers, Lynn Johnson & Me

I'll be honest. I was pretty anxious about calling. You would be too having read this impressive curriculum vitae:

Photojournalist Lynn Johnson is known for her intense and sensitive work. Over the years she had divided her time between assignments for LIFE, National Geographic, Sports Illustrated and various foundations. Johnson has traveled from Siberia to Zambia and with her Leicas, climbed the radio antenna atop Chicago’s Hancock Tower and dangled from helicopters in Antarctica. Though she has photographed notables from Tiger Woods to the entire Supreme Court, her favorite assignments are emotionally demanding stories about ordinary people.

The plot thickens on her website, though: seven Golden Quills for Photojournalism, four World Press Photography Awards, the Robert F.Kennedy Journalism Award for Outstanding Coverage of the Disadvantaged, and Picture of the Year Award from the National Press Photographer Association and the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

This is clearly a woman who gets it. She told National Geographic Photographer recently:

"For me, photography has been a mission. I don't mean on the grand scale, but in the sense of the daily awareness that each one of us is responsible for the wider community, that your sense of self and sense of responsibility outside yourself is as wide as you can embrace. It's a commitment to try to fulfill that responsibility by doing work about things that matter."

I came across Ms. Johnson rather by accident. I was doing research on photos to potentially license for the film when I came across this image of Mister Rogers staring out to sea. The photo seemed to communicate everything Mister Rogers and our film is about: seeking infinity, staring into the mystery, reflection, meditation.

On her Her website, I found a dozen of her Mister Rogers photos, lifted largely from the November,1992 issue of LIFE Magazine.

Each one of her vibrant, intimate, and clearly insider photos of Mister Rogers on Nantucket, in Pittsburgh, and on the "Neighborhood" set, indicated to me that she had spent serious time with them. Surely she had stories to tell, and lessons to impart.

I wrote her a novel of an email, explaining who I am, what I do, my relationship with Mister Rogers, and the "Mister Rogers & Me" project. She replied simply:

Hi Benjamin,

Ah, so you too have been transformed by Mister Rogers. Feel free to call me anytime.


When we finally spoke some two weeks later, I indicated that I nervous straight away.
"Mister Rogers would say that being nervous is part of growing up."

We met at the Empire Hotel Thursday night, and sat talking for well over two hours. Like most of the people I've met who knew or worked with Mister Rogers, she was patient, thoughtful and focussed. Unlike most, she was full of questions for me, many of which I hadn't considered, and some of which were in the process of changing.

Example. She asked me how I planned to effectively communicate what it felt like to spend time with Mister Rogers in person, the "physicality" of it. I told her that I hadn't really considered it, but hoped that the pace of the film, visual metaphors in it, plus the reverence of the interviewees would begin to hint at just how special it felt to spend time with him.

Example. She asked what our distribution plan was. I told her that the answer to that was in flux; where last week I would have said, "We're going to try and get it into the Nantucket Film Festival and then see what happens," this week I'd say, "We're going to get our rough cut done by March 15th and then decide."

Also. She loved how we're going to end the film.

I'm often reticent to speak with a potential interview prior to actually doing so in the event that they tell me great stories which they then have to try and retell me later with the same intensity. Luckily, we only scratched the surface, including the revelation that she interviewed Mister Rogers for her masters thesis and would be happy to share the tape.

Unfortunately, though, Lynn lives in Pittsburgh. She was in New York shooting photos for national Geographic for just a few days. So we're going to have to figure out when and where we're going to interview her.

I can't wait.

No comments: