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Annie Leibovitz Puts Down Camera, Talks

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Name a few celebrities or artists. Annie Leibovitz has probably photographed them. Her brand new book presents one hundred seventy intimate portraits of women: teachers, soldiers, astronauts, miners, athletes, artists, executives, politicians, mothers, daughters - women. For the variety of lifestyles those pictures represent and the range of expression they capture, it likely will be remembered as the definitive photographic record of women at the turn of the century.

Before appearing at Powell's to meet her fans and sign copies of her new book, Annie talked about collaborating with Susan Sontag, who, in addition to contributing the essay which accompanies the pictures, first suggested the idea for Women and later helped choose its subjects. Annie described shoots on field trips across the country. She admitted her hesitancy to take on such a project and expressed the overwhelming gratification of seeing it through to completion.

She called herself "silly."

She also did a Eudora Welty impersonation that made that particular photograph completely come alive.

I'm Annie Leibovitz

Dave: Some of the women in the new book are very well known. Others aren't celebrities at all. How did you find the subjects?

Leibovitz: There were a lot of lists made. Susan [Sontag] made a list. I made a list. I talked to John Rockwell at The New York Times. I talked to Vogue editors. Then there was this idea that there would be a set of field trips across the country.

I'd already shot the showgirls for The New Yorker, and I thought those were a really good set of pictures. I knew they would be good for the book. So I thought of a Muslim woman, a person who was the complete opposite of the showgirls, completely covering herself up. That was the start of the field trips. We went to a community outside of Detroit, a large Muslim community, and it was actually difficult getting women to sit, but one person agreed.

As the shoots continued over the last three years, especially toward the end when I didn't know if I was going to postpone the book, it was really a process of taking the pictures and putting them into a layout form, looking and seeing, How is this mix working? What am I missing? Toward the end, I thought I needed more women in manual labor. That's when I found the miners. I went out to California and shot the farmers. In local places, I found producers who might have ideas. And we'd look for events - if there was a tattoo convention or something.

We found subjects in every way you could possibly imagine. For example, I'd been trying for almost two years to get a shooting with Eudora Welty. Then I read the story in The New York Times about Osceola McCarty, the black washerwoman who gave all her money away - and she lives about a half hour away from Eudora.

Dave: It's funny that you mention those two women because they're actually two of my favorite pictures in the book. For me, the older women seem to resonate so much. Especially Eudora Welty. It's such a fantastic picture.

Leibovitz: It was so hard to get that shooting. When I finally got down to Mississippi, I was walking out the door to go meet her and I heard the phone ring. I didn't pick it up. She'd cancelled several times, and I was worried she'd be canceling again. They didn't know if she was well enough.

I was told she would come downstairs, sit in a blue chair, and I would have a few minutes. That was going to be it. But it was just getting to be spring, it was really beautiful outside, so I asked, "Would you like to go outside?"

Her helper looked at me with such a stern expression, smoke coming out of the ears, and Eudora said, "Yes! I would love to!" She put a coat on, went outside, and sat on her porch, which is where we shot it.

She was very, very southern in her hospitality and politeness, saying, "I don't know why you want to take my picture!" There were so many good photographs from that shooting, it was hard to pick one.

Dave: There are a lot of very powerful women in the book who aren't necessarily celebrities.

Leibovitz: They're very well-known in their worlds. There are famous people in the book, but they became less important; the idea was to fold them in. Most are role models in some way.

Dave: You come from a background of journalism. It seems like that would be incredibly helpful on a project like this.

Leibovitz: The truth is, I thought I was doing journalism, but I really wasn't. At the San Francisco Art Institute, what I really studied was reportage, personalized reportage, a la Robert Frank and Cartier Bresson. I didn't know this, but it had a more personal slant. When I started working for Rolling Stone, I became very interested in journalism and thought maybe that's what I was doing, but it wasn't true. What became important was to have a point of view.

That's why I ended up using the title, "Portrait Photographer." In a portrait, you have room to have a point of view and to be conceptual with a picture. The image may not be literally what's going on, but it's representative.

There was definitely an attempt in this book to be as straightforward as possible, but there are instances where to get the picture I want, I'm helping it.

For instance, Osceola: when I got there, she was sitting, waiting, all ready. And she was wearing her red suit and her wig, which she'd acquired since all of her notoriety. I walked around her house. It was very small. In her bedroom, her day dress was hanging on the back of a door.

I said, "Do you wear this?" She said, "I wear it every day." I asked, "Would you mind putting it back on?" Then I asked her if she would take the wig off. A true journalist doesn't have the right to ask that, but if you're illustrating, you can.

Dave: There are people in the book that you've photographed many times. Was the picture of Yoko Ono done specifically for this book?

Leibovitz: Yes, it was. I photographed her face many years ago, right after John died, within the year, I think. It was a very emotional, sad face. That photograph is the 1983 book. I thought it would be interesting to revisit her and do her face, close up, one more time. She has a very strong Japanese face. I wanted to do an updated version. About eighty percent was shot for the book.

Dave: It must have been hard taking these photographs knowing the context in which they'd be presented. It seems like a lot of responsibility.

Leibovitz: When I started, I was sincerely scared. The whole thing was very daunting. Where do you begin? How do you start? I was very scared of tackling this. It's such a big subject. I've said this before: I didn't want to let women down. But it became more about women's self-esteem. It really wasn't trying to be any kind of women's statement, but it became one on its own. Susan said this in her essay: some stereotypes are kept in place and some are broken.

You're very captivated by the older women. The more I look at the work, the more I realize that one of the stereotypes I see it breaking is the idea of aging and older women not being beautiful. It's not true.

But in terms of the responsibility, it's almost the reason I went ahead and didn't postpone the book. I was afraid I'd never finish it.

Dave: How involved was Susan Sontag in the process?

Leibovitz: It was her idea. I didn't jump right on the bandwagon. When I talked to my friends and other people I work with, they would get truly excited about it. I was glad they were excited and I thought it was interesting that they were excited about it. I was glad they were excited and I thought it was interesting that they were excited, but no one really knew what the book was supposed to be. Who was supposed to be in it? Susan made one of the initial lists. I pulled it out recently, and I think we shot all fifteen of the women except one or two.

Even though she said she was going to write the essay, she didn't exactly a hundred percent agree until later. If she didn't like the book, I had a feeling I wasn't getting an essay. I kept thinking I'd wind up calling Joan Didion or something. I wonder what Joyce Carol Oates is doing? But it was important that she liked it, and she does have different tastes than I have.

When I first met her, she said, "You could be good," and I've always been trying to rise to that place.

Dave: When was that? When did you meet her?

Leibovitz: About eleven years ago. I met her to take her picture. She's been a great friend in my work, letting me be serious. I'd always felt like I had to be a little silly. Toward the end of this book, she told me, "You have to smarten this up a bit." She suggested Martha Nussbaum from the University of Chicago and Katha Pollitt from The Nation.

Dave: The first picture is of your mother. There's no picture of you.

Leibovitz: We ran out of time and space. We had more pictures that we could put in the book, and I was trying to hold the price down. It became the least important thing. There are people who really should be in this book and aren't. I thought about doing a self-portrait, but it didn't matter after a while because I couldn't run what I had.

Dave: Are there any pictures in the book that you're particularly proud of?

Leibovitz: I think the showgirls are really important. My favorite one is Susan McNamara, who looks almost like a librarian as herself. I hadn't planned to shoot them as themselves. I met them at Bally's and The Stardust after theirs shows, in their costumes. The idea was that they'd come to the studio and bring their costumes with them. When they showed up at the studio, I didn't recognize them. I thought it was incredible, the juxtaposition. I was very pleased with how it came out.

It's also an example of the Susan Sontag's essay. She talks about how women, unlike men, dress up to be women. This is going beyond that in a way. In Susan McNamara's case, she's almost empowered by her costume, as if she's wearing armor.

Dave: They're powerful photographs, especially coming near the end of the book, all in a row.

Leibovitz: They're both intriguing. As the showgirls, I found them intriguing and beautiful, but then as themselves, that was also intriguing and beautiful to me.

Dave: How much time did you spend on these shoots? I'd imagine you spent a lot more time on the Natalie Portman shoot, for instance, than you might have on some of the others.

Leibovitz: Right. The Natalie Portman came out of a cover shoot, actually. For me, she filled the role of a young beauty, and I was trying to capture her place as a young girl becoming a woman. She's very young, but I almost thought, Oh, it's already too late to get the girl! She's already Woman! Woman! Woman! But I was trying to bring out the girl, too. She represented that to me more than an actress.

But, yes, that was done on a cover shoot for Vanity Fair, and it went on for a couple days down in Alabama. Interestingly enough, that's when I picked up the miners. We were going to Alabama and we just found that mine. It's a terrific story. We shot a half-mile down in the mining shaft. Those women are all married. The woman on the left hand side, Shirley, told me that she had worked twenty years in the mine because she'd put her four daughters through college. And we were all crying. It was those kinds of stories...

You were talking about the time we spent. These were done fast. They're not belabored, except when they're an assignment for a magazine. That's with the famous people. The unfamous, the unprofessional sitters, I've learned that it should be fast. It's either going to be good or it's not.

And of course what you're seeing in this book is the edit. Some of them didn't work. You can't make stuff work.

Dave: You've talked about one of the first big shoots you did, the one with John Lennon, how cooperative and straightforward he was and how much you appreciated that. You've become such a well-known figure since then. Is it any different for you now, being on the other end of it, especially when you're taking pictures of people who aren't quite as famous?

Leibovitz: I don't think most of them knew who I was, and it didn't really matter. I'd just ask if I could shoot them for my women's book. I think they were just excited to have their picture taken. But the truth is, most people, especially successful people, are hard working. They want to participate. They want to do things well.

What I learned from Lennon was something that did stay with me my whole career, which is to be very straightforward. I actually love talking about taking pictures, and I think that helps everyone. You're not there in the room talking to someone about something else while you're really trying to take their picture. You know, talking about the weather or the Knicks game because you're trying to pretend you're not really taking pictures. I always think that's funny. We're not really taking pictures here! This will make you relax! Lennon was very straightforward and helpful. What he taught me seems completely obvious: he expected people to treat each other well.

Dave: Do you have ideas about what you might do next?

Leibovitz: It's too soon for me to say what's the next idea, but I'm working on it. I'd like to do more books. This just wrapped, basically. There was a lot of work in printing it, and I've spent the last couple weeks talking about it. It's taken a lot of time. What's come out of all this is that I really like this book and this project. I didn't know when I did it how much I would like it. Now, one of the reasons I'm out talking about it is that I want to do more things like it.

Dave: We sent out a newsletter last week to announce your visit, and it's been amazing, the response. Your event was added late, and we wanted to make sure people knew about it.

Leibovitz: The event was just added on. It was actually Susan that said, "You must go to Portland! You must go to Powell's!" Literally, she said that. I was just visiting three cities or something, but she said I had to go. And it's not a problem because I love Portland.

Dave: We've had so many letters coming in since we announced it. People are worried that they might need tickets. They want to know if you'll sign their books. Is she really coming? Is she?

Leibovitz: I just love this book, that it means so many things to so many people. It's very, very moving. It's been a very emotional experience.

Dave spoke to Annie Leibovitz a few days prior to her appearance at Powell's City of Books on November 23, 1999. For more from Annie, read the 2008 Powells.com interview, conducted upon the publication of At Work.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Women
    Used Trade Paper $19.95
  2. Annie Leibovitz at Work
    Used Hardcover $27.00
  3. American Music: Photographs
    Used Hardcover $25.00

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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