What was it like to work side-by-side with Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe? What did it take to earn Mick Jagger's trust? What was John Lennon doing in the hours leading up to his murder in 1980? Photographer Annie Leibovitz answers such questions and more in her new book, Annie Leibovitz: At Work, which chronicles her singular experiences capturing some of contemporary culture's most mythic personalities and moments. Leibovitz comes to the MJCCA's Zaban Park location for a sold-out appearance Wednesday, Dec. 10, as an extension of the center's book festival.
Would you talk about the writing process and how you developed the narrative to accompany your photos?
It's been a process over the years to learn how to talk and to mean what [I] say. With Susan Sonntag, you know ... she was the one who helped me have a voice. After Susan died, I sat down with Sharon [Delano] to work on the introduction for A Photographer's Life and there were about five sessions where she literally put it together. She says I said everything on some level, but you know she put it together in a way where for the first time you could really hear my voice. You're hearing me and it has emotional context to it.
I had always wanted to do a book on the making of the photographs, you know the making of a photograph. I had this idea about a pamphlet and I was going to pick 10 photographs and try to talk about them in a way from beginning to end, everything about them – the making of them. It was gonna be just this small little book. I sat down with Sharon some time ago and I started talking about the pictures and I realized, "God, there's so much more to say about them," than I had thought, and we went from 40 pages to 240 pages. It was always meant to be a primer for teaching, which I eventually would like to do. So, it was the beginning of being able to talk about looking at the photographs and the lessons learned behind them, and how you are always a perpetual student, basically.
It was good because it's never been about the equipment and it was a struggle because it was a reaching out of me in some way. To photograph Tess Gallagher and Robert Penn Warren, which are really important pictures that are the beginning of a creative process that blatantly lets you know how it works. It was so surprising, and they're not necessarily great photos or actually good photographs even, but they're important to me in the history of how to worry about taking portraits. What an idea to read your poetry and try to let the portrait illustrate the poetry. What an idea, you know? So, they're milestones for me, and then they're part of the learning process.
You're very clear in the book that your career has been a learning process. At one point you mention that you didn't have your own studio for a long time and you would use other people's studios to scope out what they were doing.
Always, always, always.
And this is after having worked for Rolling Stone and going on tour with the Rolling Stones among other things.
Well you know the Rolling Stone work was a different kind of photography. If I was good at anything at that point, it was the black-and-white reportage work that we did do at Rolling Stone for all those years. It was sort of sketching for all those portraits in some ways. ... I became a reluctant director. I'm always torn between what I see and what I'm going to direct and make up and hopefully they collide on some level.
I feel like I'm constantly ruining moments that I see coming. I hope that I convey that in order to go forward you're going to fail. And that the struggle is what creates the work. All those struggles are what's interesting about it. And the medium, the technical aspect of it is changing all the time, too. And that's the career; that's the lifestyle. It's never-ending in that respect.
Did you ever feel like – maybe when you were young – that you had to be one certain type of photographer?
Absolutely. You know when I was young I wanted to be – depending on where I was – I wanted to be totally influenced by whatever it was. I mean when I was a photography student I wanted to be Robert Frank or [Richard] Avedon. When I was working at Rolling Stone I was looking at Life and Time and wanted to be a journalist. Then when I started to do more covers for Vanity Fair I became more interested in portrait work and really started looking at portraits. I mean I think I was metamorphosizing myself all the time. I began more to feel like a conceptual artist using photography – just using it every way it can be used.
In the book's intro you say "I've traded in my need for always taking pictures. I can let them go by sometimes now and just be there." Could you explain?
It was a way of sort of explaining obsession. You know, to really do anything well you don't even know how obsessive you are. When you're young and you don't really have a family and you don't really have a life yet, you're so hooked that it becomes obsessive and that is your life. And I just went from assignment to assignment to assignment and I really just was trying to say it's nice to just get older, have a family and sort of back off from that.
What are you hoping that people take away from the book, photography student or not?
I think that I tried to put the priorities forward about the work: that equipment is not important and that it's a lot of hard work. And that's what I was hoping the result would be for a young photographer. And the idea of having something to work with. I've always wanted to teach and so it's about creating that textbook. If someone else wants to read it that's great, but it's a way of starting to put the work in order at my age. So it's there for me to understand it and then to pass it on.
Again, what comes forward for me is hopefully a love of taking pictures and what I'm doing, and then the technical aspect is secondary. You do need photographers who all they can do is talk about the cameras. You know, I don't collect cameras, I don't have names ... they're just equipment. So I tried to set priorities as far as that it was a lot more than that. When the Queen [Elizabeth II] shoot happened last summer, I thought about it. I really just sat down and said you know I'm not gonna answer every single question anyone ever could think about or ask about or want to know so lets try and do that now.
I found [the Queen] really fascinating and the photograph of the Bush cabinet ... The Bush photograph is so iconic in a lot of ways and I think that you sort of honed in on the eerie parts of the different personalities. I wonder about this as an iconic image that will persist throughout time. What do you feel like you preserved in that moment for the future?
It's a surprise to me that it's become what it is. Just hearing you talk about it ... everyone sort of feeds their own ideas into it. It happened a couple of months after 9/11, and there's a lot of interest in the photograph, which is why we talk about it. They were sort of planning the war in Iraq, so it was an eerie moment for sure.
I don't even think of it as a good photograph. I think of it as a moment. One of those moments. It happened very fast. The only thing that I had in mind was that Bush would stand because he has a very cocky Texas, kind of like he just got off a horse, stance, so I built the picture around that. It was very heavily choreographed, and you only have a few minutes and then they came in and that's the end of the story. But it does sort of make me hope for some better times ahead. I'm hoping to do some new day. It's actually how I ended this series of pictures, with Obama sort of going off into the light and not knowing what's ahead, but that it's optimistic.
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