Volume 21, Number 33 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | December 19-25, 2008
I© Annie Leibovitz. From “Annie Leibovitz: At Work” (Random House, 2008)
Top: Annie Liebovitz; bottom left, Johnny Depp, New York, 1994; bottom right, Richard Nixon leaving the White House, Washington, D.C., 1974
Focus behind the camera
Annie Leibovitz retrospective captures her moments between moments
ANNIE LEIBOVITZ AT WORK
By Annie Leibovitz
Random House; 235 pp.; $40
BY ELENA MANCINI
“Annie Leibovitz at Work,” a newly published retrospective of the iconic photographer’s 40-year career, is equal parts text and images. She got her start in 1970, when one of her photos of Vietnam anti-war rallies in San Francisco and Berkeley was used for the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, which subsequently offered her a job.
Capitalizing on the freedom she had at the magazine to pursue her projects, Leibovitz marshaled her skill and audaciousness to launch a lifetime vocation that would be studded with assignments of great cultural and historic importance. This new book chronicles the 59-year-old photographer’s artistic journey through time and themes.
“I was never thinking about the magazine when I was on the road,” she writes. “I was in the thick of it and I made my own decisions based on what was possible. Things happen in front of you. That’s perhaps the most wonderful and mysterious aspect of photography. It seemed like you just had to decide when and where to aim the camera.”
Leibovitz displayed a knack for capturing moments occurring between the main events. One such instant came the morning after Richard Nixon’s resignation, Leibovitz’s first significant political assignment. Rather than focusing on the president boarding the helicopter, Leibovitz shot the guards rolling up the red carpets as his helicopter lifted off.
Her instinct for detecting golden opportunities has also served her well. She saw Mick Jagger’s 1975 invitation to tour with the Rolling Stones as the band’s photographer as the chance of a lifetime. Taken over by the project, Leibovitz developed a working symbiosis with Jagger that she describes as a “subject/photographer relationship of an obsessive kind…”
“For me,” she continues, “the story about the pictures is about almost losing myself, and coming back, and what it means to be deeply involved in a subject. The thing that saved me was that I had my camera by my side. It was there to remind me who I was and what I did. It separated me from them.”
In a narrative style both candid and terse, she illuminates her process with each person she portrayed. What emerges is a photographer who is respectful of her subjects’ individuality, physicality, and self- expression. A fundamental principle in Leibovitz’s approach to portraiture is naturalness. There is nothing top-down about the way she conducts her work. Studying her figures in their environments and soliciting input from them on how they most preferred to be shot, Leibovitz would often undergo harrowing feats to cast her subjects as they desired to be framed.
For a shoot with Keith Haring, it meant following him to Times Square on a cold winter night while he was wearing nothing but body paint. For Arnold Schwarzenegger, it entailed flying to a mountain peak in order to photograph him in a heroic ski pose, during a blizzard. With Patti Smith, it required igniting kerosene indoors to create a wall of flames behind the singer.
Transitioning with ease from news photography to portraits, from nudes to groups, and adapting to digital from film, Leibovitz has constantly taken risks and reinvented herself. From being privately commissioned by high-profile figures, to shooting high-end ad campaigns, to covering the Balkan War with her now-deceased partner Susan Sontag, to holding coveted appointments at magazines like Vanity Fair, and winning numerous prestigious awards, Leibovitz has enjoyed a consummate career.
Most striking is her humility and ability to exercise minimal interference with the photographic process, thereby allowing her subjects to project themselves to the camera. “I never set anyone at ease,” she writes. “Either they were at ease or they weren’t. That was part of what was interesting about a picture… I know, however, that I do set people at ease because I’m very direct. I’m there simply to take the picture and that’s it.”
It is perhaps this quality that inspired artists and cultural icons to allow Leibovitz to photograph them in the most intimate and daring of ways. The nude, seven-month pregnant Demi Moore on the cover of Vanity Fair and the photograph of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s fetal embrace remain timeless invocations of the powerful intimacy that Leibovitz’s work communicates.