Annie Says

© Annie Leibovitz. From Annie Leibovitz at Work
© Annie Leibovitz. From Annie Leibovitz at Work
© Annie Leibovitz. From Annie Leibovitz at Work

The new edition of Annie Leibovitz at Work, a collection of stories about the making of nearly all her iconic portraits and series, updates the 2008 edition by adding recent images and projects. Like the earlier volume, the new edition begins with Leibovitz’s recollection of how she first picked up a camera during a family trip, her interest in Robert Frank’s work, and her earliest assignments, such as going on tour with the Rolling Stones and photographing Richard Nixon’s departure from the White House. The new material includes images she shot of Kendrick Lamar in 2018 for Vanity Fair and two recent series: images of fellow photographer Sally Mann at home in Virginia and “Pilgrimage,” a study, first planned by Leibovitz’s late partner, Susan Sontag, of objects belonging to historic figures. These series were probably deeply personal to Leibovitz, but she rarely shares reflections or discusses emotions. Readers hoping for gossip about Leibovitz’s celebrity subjects, her clients or her personal life won’t find it here. The book is all about work.

Sometimes making the work meant forging ahead even when she was uncertain what to do. When Rolling Stone, her main client, changed its size, she had to switch from 35mm to medium-format cameras, but felt framing subjects vertically was unnatural. To learn to use strobes, she read about Harold Edgerton’s work. Until she was hired to shoot studio portraits for The Gap, she was unsure how to make a portrait without relying on the subject’s environment. To come up with ideas for conceptual portraits, she listened to her subjects. Whoopi Goldberg’s stand-up routine included a story about a black girl who believes she is white inside, so Leibovitz considered pouring white paint on the comedienne. Then a photographer told her that milk photographs well, and her portrait of Goldberg laughing while submerged in a tub of milk was born. When Leibovitz had to switch from film to digital in 2007, she was “afraid,” she says, but with time became grateful for its speed and ease.

Two closing chapters provide more specificity about her techniques. In the chapter on equipment, she says that in the 1990s, she became “nostalgic” for the spontaneity of her early 35mm work but then missed “the formality of the Mamiya’s 140mm lens,” which she used “to take some of my favorite pictures”: a portrait of her mother, one of her daughter at age six months, and of  Sontag in her last sitting. In “Ten Most-Asked Questions,” she answers question #10, about how she puts her subjects at ease: “I never set anyone at ease.” She adds, “The question assumes that one is looking for a ‘nice’ picture, but a good portrait photographer is looking for something else.”

Leibovitz’s writing is trenchant and accessible, but photography is her preferred means of expression. “I learned at a young age that what I did mattered,” she says. “My life flowed from one assignment to another. I was swallowed up by looking, first as a photojournalist and then as a portraitist. Portraiture was something that I sort of backed into, but it has turned out to be the mode in which I have expressed myself most fully. It has been a privilege to do this work.”

—Holly Stuart Hughes

Annie Leibovitz at Work
Phaidon

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