- November 18, 2021
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I found my way with it, she says ahead of the release of her new book. Even so, after more than 50 years, she admits to being nervous every time she takes aim.
Call to mind a seminal magazine photograph from the past 50 years and there’s a good chance Annie Leibovitz took it.
Detail from a self-portrait. The photographer’s latest book, Annie Liebovitz: Wonderland (published by Phaidon), is available now. © Annie Leibovitz, 2012
John Lennon, naked and wrapped around Yoko Ono, just hours before he was shot dead? Leibovitz. Demi Moore, seven months pregnant on the cover of Vanity Fair wearing nothing but a pair of earrings? Leibovitz. Whoopi Goldberg grinning like the cat who got the cream while bathing in milk? Leibovitz again. Melania Trump, pregnant in a gold bikini, standing on the steps of her husband’s Gulfstream, Caitlyn Jenner in a blush-coloured corset, revealing her true self for the first time on the cover of Vanity Fair, Kim Kardashian West and Kanye West, embracing on the occasion of their wedding… all Leibovitz.
Apart from her portraiture, she’s also been behind some of the most captivating fashion editorials in modern memory, working with models including Kate Moss, Karen Elson and Karlie Kloss to create fantastical, otherworldly stories that transcend the page and, indeed, the style of the day.
Natalia Vodianova and Helmut Lang (in picture frame), Paris, 2003. © Annie Leibovitz. From ‘Annie Leibovitz: Wonderland’
It is curious, then, that Leibovitz does not consider herself a fashion photographer. In fact, the 72-year-old says that for many years, she “didn’t take fashion seriously at all”.
“I went to the San Francisco Art Institute and studied [Henri] Cartier-Bresson,” says Leibovitz, speaking from her home in upstate New York, where she has sat out the pandemic with her three young adult daughters. “It was all about reportage and photojournalism. Fashion really seemed like the low end of the spectrum.”
Eventually, she concedes, “I found my way with it. But I never would have thought I’d end up in fashion.”
Leibovitz’s new book, Wonderland, would suggest otherwise. A smaller, slimmer volume than her other works (“I really did want something you could rest on your lap,” she says wryly), it is a celebration of her fashion photography
Anna Wintour, Vogue editor-in-chief since 1988, wrote the foreword, saying that “nothing is unphotographable for Annie; no request is too outlandish, too bizarre, too hard.”
As much as the book is a celebration, it is also an act of self-validation, and a reassessment of Leibovitz’s work some four decades after she began shooting fashion.
Cate Blanchett, Sydney Theatre Company, Australia, 2008. © Annie Leibovitz. From ‘Annie Leibovitz: Wonderland’
Leibovitz started her career as a photojournalist at Rolling Stone in 1971, when the magazine was in its infancy. She was just 21 when her portrait of John Lennon made the cover. Her photographs helped shape the magazine and give it the unvarnished visual gumption it has become known for. In her 12 years at the magazine, she went on tour with the Rolling Stones, shot the final image of the Nixon presidency as the disgraced politician boarded a helicopter from the White House, and captured the iconic, much-copied image of John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
In the late 1970s, editor Clay Felker approached her to shoot the model Margaux Hemingway for New West, a Californian spin-off of New York Magazine. It was her first brush with fashion and, says Leibovitz, a revelation.
Caitlyn Jenner, Malibu, California, 2015. © Annie Leibovitz. From ‘Annie Leibovitz: Wonderland’
“One of the things about fashion is that models know what they’re doing and they like being photographed,” she says. “That was such a new thing for me. I felt like the dentist before that, you know, everyone hated me. To enter this world where people liked being photographed and would play along, I couldn’t believe it. It felt like I was cheating or something.”
Leibovitz’s best-known fashion photography has been for Vogue, usually executed in partnership with stylist Grace Coddington. The two have a successful and mutually respectful relationship, although they do not shy away from gently ribbing one another. Coddington has said that Leibovitz “tortures herself and everyone else” (while former Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter described her as “Barbra Streisand with a camera”).
Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle, Berkshire, England, 2016. © Annie Leibovitz
“Grace is very tough,” laughs Leibovitz. “Every time I would work with her, it’s like starting from scratch. Grace likes to remind me that I don’t do a lot on set.”
That, of course, is not true.
The photographer’s influences have included everything from fairytales such as Hansel and Gretel to Harold Pinter’s Betrayal to the literary salons of Edith Wharton. In 2003, inspired by Alice in Wonderland, Leibovitz and Coddington created what is possibly the most famous fashion shoot of all time (certainly one of the most expensive), starring Natalia Vodianova as Alice, and designers including Viktor and Rolf, Tom Ford and Karl Lagerfeld as the supporting cast. The 22-page shoot, which took place in Paris, is both playful and reverent, showcasing 11 gowns specially commissioned for the shoot as well as inviting the reader to imagine the story of Alice anew.
This, says Leibovitz, is why she loves her job.
Sean Combs and Kate Moss, Hyatt Hotel, Paris, 1999. © Annie Leibovitz. From ‘Annie Leibovitz: Wonderland’
“I just love photography. I love how big it is and how broad it is, the way you can tell stories. I learnt very early on, at art school, that working with magazines in that world was going to be tough. But creating art to a deadline, doing something that matters, within the limits of a publication, is something that drives me.”
Even after more than 50 years, and photoshoots with presidents, first ladies, the Dalai Lama and the Queen, Leibovitz admits to being nervous every time she takes aim. “Oh sure! Of course,” she says. “I’m always nervous.” But, she adds, “Isn’t that the fun of it? You admire and respect people, and when you work with them, that is daunting.”
Like everyone, she says, she has “good and bad days”.
“Do things not work out? Sure. All the time. I take a few pictures a year that I love.”
Michelle Obama, Chicago, 2007. © Annie Leibovitz. From ‘Annie Leibovitz: Wonderland’
What makes a great photograph is hard to define, she says, and sometimes it takes years for her to be able to look at a photograph and assess it objectively. “The photos, and my perception of them, do change over time,” she says. “You need distance from the images. Sometimes photographs take on different meanings, or become more or less relevant over time.”
Leibovitz is known for her prodigious research and tongue-in-cheek approach (that shot of Goldberg in the bath, for instance, was a nod to a joke the comedian had made during her stand-up days about a black woman who wanted to scrub off her skin). Still, she adds, “So much of it is chance. I was doing a shoot with Johnny Depp, and he was dating Kate Moss, and I said, bring her along. And that became a great shot.”
Ditto the singer Mary J. Blige. “We took some photographs, and then she was leaving and she had this coat on and was carrying this bag, and I said, ‘Wait a minute, come back’. Her whole demeanour had changed when she was leaving; she was tough as nails. It turned out she had a gun in her bag.” That was the shot.
Shooting Queen Elizabeth, too, was a lesson in opportunity. “The first time I photographed the Queen, I was talking to her assistant who had set the whole thing up. I said, ‘Why me? Why did I get picked?’ She said, ‘Well, you asked.’ I had written her a letter five years earlier. She was right, I had asked.” Persistence, she says, pays off – eventually.
Leibovitz has no plans to retire; actually, she still has a list of personalities she’d like to photograph. The week after we speak, she is meeting with her Vogue and Vanity Fair editors to discuss the ideas she has been germinating over lockdown.
“I’d love to shoot Angela Merkel,” she says. “I’ve been trying to shoot her for a few years now but her office keeps pushing it out, asking me to wait until she retires. And every time I see that she has had her photo taken by someone else, it drives me crazy.”
NEED TO KNOW
Annie Leibovitz: Wonderland by Annie Leibovitz, published by Phaidon, is available from all good bookstores. $125
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