10 April 2008
In 1996, I attended a writing conference in Key West whose guest authors included Rick Bass, Annie Dillard, Gretel Ehrlich, Jim Harrison, Thomas McGuane, John Nichols, Doug Peacock, Peter Matthiessen, and Gary Snyder. Snyder and Matthiessen were prevented from coming by huge winter storms that stopped air traffic west of Colorado. I had looked forward to seeing them, though I had met Mr. Mattiessen several times before. Still, the conference was a hoot, and Jim Harrison and his old friend, Tom McGuane, stole the show. It was by sheer dint of intelligence that they were able to do so. They are geniuses, that much was evident and clear, each in his own way.
McGuane, handsome and intense, seemed focussed and irritated as he listened to other authors speaking while Harrison seemed laconic and bored. Just when you thought that he might have fallen into sleep, however, he would espouse some learned gem that made the afternoon worthwhile. Harrison wore the same jacket and t-shirt each day, both frayed and dirty. He was large, leaning toward amorphous, but there was a broken power in his presence that seemed, even in its diminished form, greater than mere mortal.
I took this photograph just before a very frail, elderly lady introduced herself. It was John Steinbeck's widow, and she had been in the audience for a number of days, unrecognized and unnoticed. I had only my Olympus XA with its attached flash, and the automatic exposure caught something in the foreground, so the picture I took turned out to be unprintable. It was an historic occasion and it is lost.
There is nothing intimate about this portrait, nothing to recommend it but the fierce presence of this author. We see him here a gourmand and a glutton, plagued by gout, limping as he walked with the aid of a cane, his famous wandering eye pointing toward some distant star, his fierce passions at last overtaking him. He once said, "I no longer know if I am thinking or writing." I look into that one good eye and begin to understand.
Text and photo: Wiliam Schmidt
If you want to know more about Jim Harrison, this interview in The Morning News (2004) could be a good start.