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Annie Leibovitz at Work

Of course At Work features many of Annie Leibovitz's famous photographs. But for the first time, you'll also hear the stories behind those images — who, how, where, and why — whether it's the Stones on tour or the Queen at Buckingham Palace, a surgeon in Kosovo or Baryshnikov on Cumberland Island.

Annie Leibovitz For example: In case it wasn't enough to photograph Nixon's resignation, Leibovitz covered the story alongside Hunter S. Thompson. And while you may know that many of her celebrity portraits were shot for American Express campaigns, you probably wouldn't have guessed that Amex only gave her a credit card after she left an envelope with thousands of dollars in cash at a pay phone during one of those shoots.

"I'd always wanted to do a small, pamphlet-sized book on the making of a photograph," Leibovitz reflected. "What was supposed to be a 40-page book turned into a 240-page book, At Work."

Booklist confirms, "As [Leibovitz] reflects with humility and gratitude on all that she has observed, and shares what she has learned as an artist and a human being, her photographs, so lusciously reproduced, take on new dimension."

Dave: After so many books of photographs, is it daunting to publish one that relies as much on prose?

Annie Leibovitz: Was it daunting? The reality is I have a whole new respect for the printed word. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done. I had been talking about the way I'd taken some of these pictures over the years, and I thought it made complete sense. When I read the first drafts, it was frustrating to realize that I wasn't coming across clearly enough. It was an extraordinary exercise in getting things out of my head and onto the page, trying to say what I mean and what I care about.

Dave: How did the idea come about?

Leibovitz: I'd always wanted to do a small, pamphlet-sized book on the making of a photograph. I even entertained the idea that I was going to talk about ten photographs extensively, not necessarily famous photographs, but how they were made.

When I signed this four-book contract with Random House, I asked that one of the books could be this 40-page pamphlet. Then, last year, when I sat down after A Photographer's Life, which is of course a huge book, what came out of my mouth during my talks and interviews with Sharon Delano [the editor] was much different than I'd imagined. The 40-page book turned into a 240-page book, At Work.

And then the Queen episode happened. I was in Europe when that story broke. I remember calling Sharon and saying, "You know, let's just answer every single question. Let's take every picture that people have questions about..." Although it didn't quite work out that way, either. Basically, through a kind of chronological discussion about the pictures, you see how they're made and the thoughts behind them: what it takes to take the pictures. There's no smoke and mirrors. Hopefully, that's what's distilled, that it's nothing but work; it's about learning how to see. The book is directed at young photographers, people interested in photography.

Dave: I wouldn't call myself a photographer, but I was interested enough in the technical details, too.

Leibovitz: Through a set of five interviews, Sharon helped me with the introduction to A Photographer's Life. It was the first time that I thought I sounded something like myself, the first time I broke through that barrier. But Sharon doesn't know anything technical about taking a picture.

When we sat down to do At Work, she kept thinking there would have to be a lot of technical detail in the book. Quite honestly, it's just the opposite. I wanted to emphasize that the technical aspect is important, but what's really important is learning to see. How you look and how you feel.

I started to say to Sharon, "Take anything I say that's technical and throw it in the back of the book." We ended up making a section called Equipment. It's funny to me because it just has stuff like, "I hate using tripods." That's the equipment section.

In fact, I was surprised there was so much technical information. I think that's because as we were making the book, the whole digital revolution sort of happened for me. I'm a little slow. But, literally, while we worked on the book, I changed how I worked with digital. I wanted to explain that a bit. So that's in there, and I'm sure by the time the book comes out it'll be changed again.

Dave: What changed for you, specifically?

Leibovitz: Digitally, now I'm almost back to the way I was shooting film. The cameras are pretty fantastic. They have big screens on the back; it's like looking at a Polaroid as you shoot. And I'm not tethered to anything. At the end of the shoot, I go back to my studio and office, and I download the work.

It's really in the processing — it's fun afterwards, like it used to be. Whereas when digital started, you had all these rooms filled with machines. You needed six technicians. I didn't quite understand. It was like going into surgery or something. Frightening. I said, "Oh, my god. It takes all this to shoot a digital picture?" Then, as you learn about it, you learn what you don't need until you're almost back where you started, which is really exciting.

Dave: About the photograph of Schwarzenegger on his horse, you write, "I'm reluctant to have form impose the meaning on a picture." From where, then, should the meaning arise?

Leibovitz: The picture of Arnold on the horse always bothered me. I didn't feel like it went to the next place, wherever that next place is. You were looking at his form, and at the horse's form; his legs, his shape. I also found that with my series on athletes, which I didn't think was very successful. It was pretty and entertaining, but I didn't feel like it was telling you a story or taking you to a different place.

I hear your question. You're saying, "What is meaning in a picture?" There's another chapter we can write now, the follow-up. Meaning — for me, it's almost like you don't want to look at a picture and just notice what kind of lens you're using. You want to forget that it's photography.

But that's the great thing about photography: it can have all kinds of meanings. Some are successful and some aren't. It's like a Dylan song; everyone brings their own meaning to it.

Dave: After looking at your portraits for a couple weeks, I ran across a quote by Richard Avedon in the back of On Photography, Susan Sontag's book.

"The photographs have a reality for me that the people [my subjects] don't. It's through the photographs that I know them. Maybe it's in the nature of being a photographer. I'm never really implicated. I don't have to have any real knowledge. It's all a question of recognitions."

Leibovitz: There are several ideas in that passage.

Dave: It was the idea of recognitions that struck me. You may be working on an advertising shoot, with more time and resources, but it's not as if you're necessarily a long-time associate of the subject. And yet, one way or another, your job is to bring out that subject.

Leibovitz: Yes and no. I argue a lot about this, about the reality of getting to the heart of the matter. There's only one place I've ever gotten to the heart of the matter, and that's with my family and my very close friends.

There were assignments in the days of Life magazine where people did get to spend time — the photographers did get to know the subjects. These days, I don't think that is true. We really are taking a portrait as an essence. It depends so much on what the subject wants to give. You can help direct somewhat, but it's ultimately just a moment where two people are collaborating.

Usually, for assignment work, especially if it is a well-known person, you both know why you're there, and you're doing it together. It is kind of a presentation. You're constantly thinking, Gee, it would be nice to see a little more. But sometimes the surface is fine. I've found the surface of a lot of people to be enough.

When you're working with well-known subjects, they learn to project. Sometimes that gets in the way because you're getting something that people see a lot; you wish you could see something else. But sometimes seeing what everyone else sees is interesting, too. To me, it's all interesting. I don't know what it's like for you as a viewer.

Dave: The photograph is going to express something, regardless. You might have limited control over what it says, but that can be okay. It struck me that the Avedon quote can just as easily apply to interviews.

Leibovitz: And that's what I say at the beginning of the book. I was always afraid of saying "no" to an assigment because sometimes the work that you imagine won't be exciting turns out to be a little gem. Likewise, what was supposed to be exciting sometimes isn't. It's all so different, every time you go. You can't totally control the situation. You hope that you're prepared.

When you're there and something is going on, or you've helped direct something meaningful, you hope that you're a good enough photographer to take that picture.

Dave: That reminds me of one of my favorite pictures in A Photographer's Life: the diver above a river in Sarajevo. You shot that during the war, right?

Leibovitz: Right.

Dave: There's so much going on in that picture. I left the book open to that page for a month, and I kept finding new details.

How did you end up taking that picture? Did you purposely go to photograph a scene of that sort? Do people dive at that spot every day?

Leibovitz: No, no, no. It was spring, and it was hot. It was a beautiful day. It was the whole dichotomy of Sarajevo, people living in this fish bowl, surrounded by snipers — they used shipping containers to block certain parts of streets so they could walk across. And then here, in that picture, it would be hard to believe that a war was going on.

The spirit of these people... They didn't have running water, but they dressed every day and made themselves look presentable as if they had someplace to go. They went about their lives. They didn't want to give in to what was really going on. They kept their heads held high.

This was one of those moments when they just said, "We're going swimming." Was it dangerous? Yes. It wasn't quite at a place in the river where people could be knocked off easily, but it was still dangerous. They just said, "We're going to do this." It's such a strange picture to me.

Dave: There's a photo in At Work of Obama in front of a curtain.

Leibovitz: He's heading out to speak. He's behind a curtain, about ready to go out and speak at a rally.

Dave: Are there images that resonated with you from the experience of traveling with Obama's team during the primaries? I would imagine that following the campaign trail must have been a colorful experience.

Leibovitz: Absolutely. And it certainly was the longest-running show I'd ever seen. I was glad to go out on the road and see and hear him. I worked with him a couple other times, he and his wife, so it was nice to get out on the road and know that you were on this historic campaign. I was just glad to be there.

Were the pictures extraordinary? No. I do like the idea that my work continues over thirty-five or forty years, with a sense of history. The photo of Obama was meant to be optimistic. It was added at the last minute. It was meant to show that I'm still a working photographer. Here we are, doing it. It's 2008, and here we are. Kind of a time marker.

I really think about my pictures that way. I think it's in the "10 Most-Asked Questions" [a chapter at the end of At Work], where I talk about the idea of covering my lifetime in some capacity. I can't be at everything I wish I could, but the Obama picture was put in there to mark time. Here we are. Where are we going next?

He's an elusive person to photograph. I think I even talk in that section about how I became sort of transfixed with his grace and his elegance, the way he can move. He ran in spurts.

Dave: Was Keith Richards conscious in the picture that you took of him sprawled on the floor of the photo set? Leibovitz: No. We were doing a cover for Rolling Stone, and he was taking a little break. I've said this before, but I have very few pictures of Keith standing, actually.

Dave: What did your parents think about your early assignments and the excesses of that scene? Did they know much about your lifestyle?

Leibovitz: They didn't quite understand. Look, neither did I. It sort of took me by surprise. I was pretty naïve. I went on that tour thinking I would take tennis lessons every day. I had been working for Rolling Stone for five years; I was the last person to figure anything out.

You went on a tour and you did everything you do on a tour. Up until that time, I thought that you should blend in with whatever's going on in order to get the best picture. And I think I say this in the book, that it was a mistake to pick that situation to blend into. It took a while to get off the tour. I guess it was a rite of passage, and I was lucky enough to get through it.

When I wrote about it this time, I tried to emphasize the drugs less and focus more on the relentlessness of going from city to city every night, and the loneliness, how hard it was to be that physical and to keep going. There's a passage in the book about Mick seeming like he was off the floor, floating to the ceiling. It was some kind of magic, which had nothing to do with drugs; it was more about being on the road for an extended period of time. You're sort of like a balloon out in the air, being blown. The tour was its own kind of world, and it was fascinating.

Dave: Many of the photos in At Work are very much of a time. Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, for example.

Leibovitz: That whole section is about working with writers. It was about Hunter and about Tom, and what it was like to be a young photographer on the road with these people, what I learned from them. That's one the most interesting sections to me.

Dave: It might have been the section on Truman Capote, where you say that the two of you could be covering a story in totally different ways, but the photographs and text could wind up working together.

Leibovitz: I could have said that even stronger. I didn't, I guess because I didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings, but I really believe that the photographer can tell an opposite story from the writer. You're going to get a more informed story in the long run.

When I started working, most photographers still felt, if they went out with a writer, the writer was more important and they were meant to illustrate what the writer did. At a certain point, I stopped going out with writers. I had my own agenda, and I didn't feel it was necessary.

I do like to confer with writers and talk to them about what they're doing. There's a lot of good information to be shared. But it's hard, even for a subject, with the writer and photographer there at the same time. And usually the photographer gets the short end of the stick. Getting words out of the subject takes a long time. There's a thought that taking the picture should be a snap. Did you take the picture? Okay.

In that era, most of the writers, let's say at Rolling Stone, came from newspapers, so they did have that mentality. And when I was young, it was great to be there with Ben Fong Torres while he interviewed Ray Charles or Grace Slick; I wanted to work around Ben, and that was interesting. Then you start to learn that if you want something more...

Dave: Did that experience help break down the mystique of the subjects? I'd imagine that there should be some degree of comfort between you and your subject.

Leibovitz: Or not.

Dave: Do you find that sometimes you wind up with a better photograph when you don't have a comfortable relationship?

Leibovitz: No. On the contrary, it's still the responsibility of the photographer to get the picture. But it's like when you meet anyone: you're not always going to like them, and they're not always going to like you.

Starting at a very young age, doing this, it was like high school: you want everyone to like you. At a certain point, you've grown up and people aren't liking you as much, or you're not as cute as you used to be when you were younger — you have to get a new shtick. I grew up in my work, so I had to learn how to make those things work. But there's no set rule.

I do find that as I get older not all these sessions have to take so long. People's attention spans are limited. I'd rather stop and come back another day than try to make something work that just isn't going to in that moment.

There's urgency in the sense that there's a limited amount of time when the subject is going to feel like they want to do it. After a while, they're going to feel like they've failed, and then they don't want to do it. I try to make it quicker now. But I do still reserve the right for that to change, to spend longer.

I also say in the book that the times I've spent longer on the work, it's yielded the most interesting set of photographs: the Mark Morris-Baryshnikov pictures, the White Oak dance group down in Florida where I spent three weeks, and the Rolling Stones tour; you are going to get something extraordinary because you've been there longer.

I know I'm contradicting myself all the time.

Dave: What's the longest you typically go without a camera in your hand or in your bag?

Leibovitz: I always have a camera nearby. I don't necessarily pick it up.

It's very frustrating with my children. I see millions of wonderful photographs zoom by when I'm looking at my children, and I don't pick that thing up. Since Photographer's Life, I'm definitely in a bit of a holding pattern with photographing my children. I'm just enjoying them. But there's always a camera within reach.

Dave: In At Work, you mention that you started school as a painting major. Do you remember pictures that captivated you even before you'd conceived of a career in photography?

Leibovitz: I don't think I was thinking about photographs before I bought that camera in Japan during the break between the first and second year of school.

For a lack of anything to do, I was using the base's hobby shop, the darkroom, starting to take pictures. I liked it right away. I felt filled up right away. I was seeing the world. I was the middle child among six kids. My parents were exhausted. Now I had a friend. It was less lonely. You could look at something and carry that image with you. When I look back, I can see the specific images; some of those very early images are still very important to me.

In Photographer's Life, I felt so lucky in a grieving moment to have those images, to take me through grief. Photography has been such a powerful life for me. Now, with my kids, maybe it's meant to be that I don't pick up my camera and I'm more in life, but I can still hear my brain go, Click. I see them and I go, What a moment! They move so fast.

But I have to negotiate if I want to trade off being there for taking pictures. I can't chew gum and walk at the same time. It's hard. I remember when I used to stand in front of the stages, those early days at Rolling Stone, I wouldn't hear the music. I'd be concentrating so hard on taking the picture, I didn't hear the songs. It is a negotiation, and I consciously have worked to build a life because I don't want that to pass me by. But anyone who is going to do anything well, it takes an obsession, a drive.

The Dorothea Lange story says it best, the last chapter in At Work. She was exhausted, she was tired, she was on her way home. She drove by a sign that said, "Pea-pickers Camp." She drove twenty more miles, and then she turned around and went back, and she found the photograph of her lifetime and of her career. You just never know. That's the way it is.

Dave: At Work provides a nice counterpoint to Photographer's Life. From that book's oversized format and full bleed photos to this one's more modest frames and the accompanying prose, which fills in a lot of metaphorical white space.

Leibovitz: It's meant to get rid of the mystique, to take it down a few notches and bring it to earth. I'm talking about the mistakes and the failures, which make up a career. You hope that any young person will understand that doing anything involves a series of mistakes. Hopefully, that's a healthy thing. It's nothing more than work.

Annie Leibovitz spoke by telephone from her studio on October 2, 2008. For more from Annie, read the 1999 Powells.com interview, conducted upon the publication of Women.

÷ ÷ ÷

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. Annie Leibovitz at Work
    Used Hardcover $28.00
  2. A Photographer's Life: 1990-2005 Used Hardcover $55.00
  3. Women
    Used Trade Paper $19.95
  4. American Music: Photographs Used Trade Paper $32.00
  5. On Photography
    Sale Trade Paper $7.98


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

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