Annie Leibovitz doesn’t name her cameras. And if you want to talk about digital cameras, don’t bother. “They’re just tools,” she explains.
When the famed photographer attended the San Francisco Art Institute in her youth, she says, the most valuable lessons she learned had nothing to do with technical skills, but rather how to see — really see — her subjects. But over the years, she’s frequently asked about both the content and the technical aspects of her work. So she penned At Work in 2008, which tells the stories of shooting some of the world’s most famous people, from the Rolling Stones on tour to Queen Elizabeth II, and the specifics of the camera and lighting, as well as working with writers and photojournalism.
“At Work is a series of case studies of concepts of photographs that I took throughout my career up to that point that were sort of like benchmarks and rite of passage moments that taught me how to be a photographer,” Leibovitz says. “It’s really meant as a primer for young photographers to understand what goes into a photograph.”
She’s currently touring to speak about the reprinting of her book by art book printers Phaidon. She added some newer photographs, including one of Stephen Hawking. “I decided not to change the rest of the text because I felt like it was a time capsule from when I did the book. I think we might have cleaned up a couple things about digital in the text, but pretty much left it intact. If I started messing around with it too much, I’d basically have a new book,” she laughs.
Leibovitz captured the Rolling Stones on tour in 1975.
© Annie Leibovitz. From Annie Leibovitz At Work.
While Leibovitz is most widely known for shooting photographs of pop culture icons, her oeuvre also includes personal work and political figures. At Work, for instance, includes photos from Richard Nixon’s resignation. In that same vein, she famously photographed the Trumps in 2009 — jet and sports car included. Would she consider shooting Donald Trump again, now that he’s president? “I go back and forth about whether I would or will,” Leibovitz says. “I haven’t made any decision about that.”
Referencing Trump, she adds, “There are people in this [Annie Leibovitz: Portraits 2005-2016] portrait book who have fallen from grace, as well: Aung San Suu Kyi and Harvey Weinstein. It’s interesting to see how quickly things have gone downhill for some of the people we have photographed.” She’s referencing the Burmese politician who persecuted journalists, ignored military atrocities and the persecution of the Rohingya people, and the former Miramax producer accused of sexual assault. “History overtakes them,” she says of her photographs.
She recalls a photograph of Woody Allen, too, that she shot in a dark screening room. “Sometimes, they kind of foretell… After history changes, you realize how much the viewer looks at a picture and puts into it. Something like Woody Allen in a musty screening room in the dark room that he works in — it could be a little creepier. But you’re not thinking that until the next thing happens to him. You want to take John and Yoko — that picture was photographed for me about romance or relationships, and then when John Lennon dies, it turns into a goodbye, a goodbye kiss from Yoko. They’re like Bob Dylan songs; these portraits are like little capsules. For the viewer to look at and have their own opinion.”
But if you’re thinking that viewers can look back at Leibovitz’s photos with new eyes because she has captured the essence of her subject, well, don’t. “I do fight that terminology because the nature of the work, of what I do, is I go in and out, really fast. It’s impossible to really capture somebody like that. You’re getting a facet or side of that person. A small fraction of who that person might be.”
Marilyn Leibovitz in 1997.
© Annie Leibovitz. From Annie Leibovitz At Work.
But in her more personal work, she says, “the bar is raised.” Leibovitz describes a portrait of her mother, which is discussed in At Work, as a more “intimate portrait that’s extremely strong. But I don’t get to do that [with my other work], and frankly, I’m not so sure if I want it,” she laughs. That’s just the nature of that kind of work. “I’ve come to be comfortable with it. I used to drive myself crazy when I thought something could be more powerful, but I think it has a place, the work. I’ve always said the most interesting part of the work is the body of the work.” The photographer also notes that she believes the greatest photography out there now is photojournalism.
After nearly half a century of portrait photography, Leibovitz remains committed to her art form.
“I’m going to do that till I drop,” she says about shooting portraits. “What I care about the most, besides my family of course, is continuing this work. I like to tell a story and I like to have the sense that you can believe it’s real.”
Annie Leibovitz, At Work. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, November 28, at Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd. Miami; arshtcenter.org. Each full-price ticket includes a copy of At Work. The $100 tickets include a signed copy (available in limited supply), and $65 tickets include an unsigned copy.