PM: What do you recall about the day you saw Down to the River for the first time? You'd seen proofs, but was it different holding the actual book?
SD: Seeing and then holding my brand new book was quite an experience. It had been over a five year process...and then there is a birth of sorts. A book that held all of these photographs of mine and memories...and it had my name on it! Pretty cool. Sort of surreal too. I went to the Press' office to pick up the first copy. Holly Carver, my editor, presented it to me. The book surprised me. Just seeing it as an object--a beautiful object. At the time, I only briefly ran through some of the pages looking at it. Holly told me how much they loved it and how wonderful it looked. I was happy but sort of not taking it all in--I left soon after and got in my car with the book in the passenger seat. I kept looking over at it.
I drove to my friend Chris Offutt's house. Melissa was there and Chris's sons Sam and James were there too. I was glad Chris was home and that I could share my book with him. I knew he would understand how I felt, as Chris has had many of his own books published. I recall him showing me his newly published books...and many times it was my photo of Chris either on the front cover of the book (The Same River Twice and No Heroes: A Memoir of Coming Home) or the author photo inside. We have been friends for a long time. He was in the Iowa Writers' Workshop in the late '80s and we met at The Foxhead.
Later I got home and I spent some time alone looking at each and every page. I was really thrilled that it looked so good. After that, I put it aside and slipped right back into my normal life. A long time passed before I picked it up again.
Having a book published of those photographs--many of them many years old--is a wonderful thing. But now that the photographs are in a book and out in the world, it is as if they aren't mine anymore. Difficult for me to describe this feeling, but I have also felt that way when I see my photos hanging in a show. Looking at the photographs in an exhibition, all matted and framed and titled, they really do take on a new life.
PM: When you make an appearance to publicize the book, what happens? Do you tell stories? Do you show slides or bring prints?
SD: I have given lectures and then I show a Power Point slide show and ramble on about the photographs and such. I enjoy an audience. At Prairie Lights, our independent bookstore [in Iowa City], I answered questions--I enjoy that too. I mean, how often do you really get to talk about your work? I think it is pretty wonderful to have people interested in what I do. I count myself lucky!
PM: Sandy, we first got acquainted when I asked to use a couple of your photographs for Puremusic. They were pictures of Greg Brown--an image from that same session is on the cover of your book. You've photographed Greg on a number of occasions over the years. Does a story come to mind from any of those times?
SD: About a year ago--for No Depression magazine--I enjoyed taking photographs of Greg. It felt more comfortable than earlier shoots. It takes me awhile sometimes to find my groove with people. I think part of why everything worked so well that day was because the night before there was a concert with Greg at the Englert Theatre in Iowa City and it was a phenomenal show. Greg was in a rare mood--sang his Ina Bell song ["Ina Bell Sale" from the Over and Under CD] on stage without his guitar...ranting and chanting.... Greg turned into a preacher. And at the exact right moment, all of the lights in the theatre went out. No, this was not planned. Everyone sat in the dark for a while...the music kept going. (My friend Justine told me years ago that the Englert has some ghosts that dwell there.) No doubt the music and the memorable night at the Englert added to how I photographed Greg the next day.
PM: You did a live radio interview--I heard it later online--and during a segment where listeners could phone in and ask questions, Bo Ramsey called the show and kidded with you about the idea that taking a photo of somebody might be a way of stealing their soul. You've shot a lot of great photos of Bo over the years and made a very cool video of him. How is he for you to photograph?
SD: Live shows, hands-down my favorite is Bo. He is the king of cool and just has this look--you know? He has a presence on stage and can really front a band. And he, as far as I know, is the only musician who can really direct and lead an audience in the way he does. Back when shows used to be three whole sets with one band, it was crazy how Bo could build up the crowd...slowly, and then bring them down a bit...just so they'd be asking for more. The night was almost always magical because his timing was impeccable.