The documentary film about her life begins with celebrities simply saying her last name one after another. Leibovitz. Leibovitz. Leibovitz. Not only is her last name as unique as the photographs she creates, Annie Leibovitz has become synonymous with the profession that has made her nearly as famous as the people she photographs. Her images have appeared at museums and galleries all over the world, including the National Portrait Gallery in London and the Centre National de la Photographie in Paris. She has been given the Barnard College Medal of Distinction and the Infinity Award in Applied Photography from the International Center of Photography and was also designated a Living Legend by the Library of Congress. In short, Annie Leibovitz is an icon of modern photography.
There are certain photographers that you just connect with. Sometimes you can explain why and other times you just can’t. When I look at the work of Annie Leibovitz, I see more than just photographs. I see someone whose entire existence has been defined by photography. She takes pictures like other people eat and breathe. Her whole life is her subject. I know that even if she had not become a “legend”, even if all she had done was take photographs of her family, she still would have identified herself as a photographer. She could be nothing else. A photographer is not only what she is, it is who she is. The camera is like an extension of her.
Although her celebrity photos are what have made her famous, I am actually more fond of her personal work. I think that is where her real talent shows through, or at least one aspect of her talent. Her celebrity photos show her imagination and creativity. She is able to explore and set up scenes, having every resource available to her. Although it is still her creativity and vision at work, it is not something most of us are able to do. She has the freedom to let her imagination go and create what she wants. Her personal work, however, is completely different. She has just herself and her camera. It is a way for her to not only to document her life, but to be present in it. She doesn’t walk away from the difficult parts of her life, but she records it. I look at her personal work and I see a life. Not just snapshots, but powerful images of things she felt deeply.
She has said, “The best kind of photography is what is around you. You become part of it.” You can see that in all of her work. Her stamp is on every shot. You know just by looking that there is no way anyone else could have taken that shot. She becomes a part of whatever she is shooting. I especially see that in her photos of Mikhail Baryshnikov. She has said she has always had a love for dance because her mother was a dancer. You can see when she interacts with him as they are shooting how much respect she has for what he does and the movements he is able to do so beautifully. I love how she wants to just be a part of his world and taking his photograph is the way she is able to do that.
Anna-Lou Leibovitz was born on October 2, 1949, in Waterbury, Connecticut to a dance instructor and a lieutenant colonel in the US Air Force. She says that because of her family’s transient military life she became accustomed to looking at the world through the frame of the window of their family’s car. She and her five siblings would be loaded into the family station wagon and they would drive nonstop to whatever military base her dad had been stationed to next. Little did she know how much of a role that car window would play in her journey as one of the world’s most important photographer.
Annie bought her first camera during her freshmen year of college while visiting Japan. The first thing she did with it was take it on a climb up Mt. Fuji. She says that walk taught her a big lesson about cameras and photography. Having arrived at the top she realized the only film she had was the roll in the camera and there were only two or three frames left. She took it as a lesson in respecting her camera, saying, “If I was going to live with this thing, I was going to have to think about what that meant. There weren’t going to be any pictures without it.”
Starting her college career majoring in painting at the San Francisco Art Institute she soon switched majors to photography. Being impatient she liked the immediacy of photography, plus painting was too isolating and she wanted to be around people. She loved the idea of being the next Robert Frank, driving around taking pictures and looking for stories. You can see this style in her older photos, the ones from the beginning of her career. Whether shooting the presidential election or bands like the Rolling Stones, each image was almost a photo essay on its own. I think one of her most powerful images from that time period is of Richard Nixon leaving the White House. Nixon is not even in the shot and yet somehow that tells an even bigger story. It was history in the making and she showed that in one image.
What I love the most about Annie’s photographs is that she is never afraid to take chances. Many would say that is because she has “made it”; that she is a success. No matter what she asks of her subjects they will do it, only because of who she is. Or, that she doesn’t have to worry about failing anymore, so there really is no risk. But it’s more than that. Her subjects know that they are in the hands of an artist, whose soul purpose is to make an engaging photograph. As for taking risks, it’s part of her process. Her risk-taking started off in the very beginning of her career and continues still. When she started out at a little known magazine called Rolling Stone, there was no blueprint for “photographic icon” to follow. I think that encouraged her to take chances. She had no limits. She was able to go out and shoot whatever was happening, to make her own decisions that represented her vision.
One of the biggest events in her career came when she was invited to photograph the Rolling Stones on tour. She took leave from her gig at Rolling Stone magazine (with no promise of a job on her return) to travel with the band in 1975. She was allowed carte blanche, was able to shoot wherever she wanted and whatever she wanted. The images from that tour are almost timeless and although the work was long and extremely difficult, what comes through is the excitement and the romance.
She was always trying to get photographs that other people missed. Her personal work was more important to her than her professional work, just because of the very nature of it. It meant more to get the images she wanted than to fill some quota or to make her editors happy. She was happiest when photographing what she wanted and you can see that, especially with the photos she took of her partner, Susan Sontag.
I also love her conceptual work, which is another area where she has taken risks. She doesn’t just take portraits, she incorporates some other interesting feature about that person into the image. She says she did her homework. “If I were preparing to photograph a dancer, I would watch him dance. I would listen to the musician’s record. Somewhere in the raw material was the nucleus of what the picture would become.” She never does things simply and as time has gone on her photos have gotten to be cinematic in scope. In recent years she has done campaigns for Louis Vuitton, Disney, and spreads for Vogue and Vanity Fair, all of which are more than just photographs. She is able to take her creativity to a level most of us can only dream of. With all of the resources she has available to her she can pretty much say how she envisions the image and it is taken care of.
Annie Leibovitz has had her share of tragedy and trouble in her life. She has taken chances when she didn’t know where the road would lead. Her whole career has been spent in pursuit of her dream of just taking pictures. It has not been all fame and glory, but she has been able to do what she loves.
BOOKS: Annie Leibovitz