Artist of the Week: Annie Leibovitz

I’ve been posting the Artist of the Week series for a while now and so it’s time to mention America’s household name in photography, Annie Leibovitz. I don’t know what it is about Annie—that she shoots for widely read publications like Vogue and Vanity Fair? famously captured the last photo of John Lennon? was recently in the news for financial struggles?—but everyone seems to know her name.

artist of the week Annie Leibovitz -

Annie Leibovitz with her controversial 1991 portrait of a pregnant Demi Moore. Photo by Marc Silber.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono, New York City, December 8, 1980

(c) Annie Leibovitz – John Lennon and Yoko Ono, New York City, December 8, 1980

Her celebrity status is somewhat ironic given her statement that, “I’m more interested in being good than being famous.” But, as the Voguepedia relates, “by elevating celebrity portraiture to an art, she has become as renowned as many of her subjects.”

Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair June 2005

Angelina Jolie with son Maddux (c) Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair, June 2005

Annie is the photographer behind my very first signed photo book (you know I have a little collection, right?). I was in Atlanta with my mom for the 1996 Olympics and Annie was there to sign her book, Olympic Portraits, so I met her and asked her to sign both that and Dancers for me. For more of her Olympic portraits, check out the related Vanity Fair feature.

Olympic Portraits Annie Leibovitz

Olympic Portraits by Annie Leibovitz

Dancers by Annie Leibovitz

Dancers interior spread by Annie Leibovitz

My favorite of Annie’s books, however, is Annie Leibovitz At Work. I bought it as soon as it came out and read it all in one sitting. What can I say, there’s something powerful about reading someone’s story in his or her own words!

As such I’m going to let Annie tell her own story as much as possible for the rest of this post. All quotes are from At Work, pages cited.

Annie Leibovitz: Early Years

“I was a third-year student at the San Francisco Art Institute when my pictures began appearing in Rolling Stone.” (p. 12) 

“During the early years at the magazine, when I thought of myself more as a photojournalist than a portraitist, I usually carried three cameras on assignment. I didn’t want to lose time changing lenses. I would take a 35mm lens, a 55, and a 105.” (p. 16)

Richard Nixon leaving the White House 1974

Richard Nixon leaving the White House, Washington, DC, 1974 (c) Annie Leibovitz

“I had rudimentary technical skills when I started working. I had never shot in color when Rolling Stone began printing four-color covers in 1973, although by then Jann Wenner had given me the title “chief photographer.” (p. 49)

The Rolling Stones, Philadelphia 1975

The Rolling Stones at The Spectrum, June 29, 1975 (c) Annie Leibovitz

On Developing a Style: Portraits

“To survive the printing process at Rolling Stone, I began adding strobes to natural light. This produced very graphic images in terms of form and color.” (p. 52)

“The basic ideas for [two early portraits she took of poets] came from reading their poems, from doing my homework. If I were preparing to photograph a dancer, I would watch him dance. I would listen to the musician’s record. Somewhere in the raw material was the nucleus of what the picture would become. It didn’t have to be a big idea. It could be simple. There’s a case to be made that the simpler the idea the better.” (p.55)

Whoopi Goldberg by Annie Leibovitz 1984

Whoopi Goldberg (c) Annie Leibovitz 1984

“The portrait of Whoopi Goldberg was shot just as her career was taking off. She had had a big success with a one-woman show at a club downtown in New York. I had looked at some grainy tapes of her act and was drawn to one of her characters, a little black girl who thinks that she’s white underneath. The little girl bathes in Clorox to get rid of the black. My original idea wasn’t very good. I wanted to paint Whoopi white and let the paint drip off her. Then I thought she should be in a white bath. A photographer who worked in advertising a lot said, Oh, use milk. Milk photographs as white really well.

“I met Whoopi at her house in Berkeley and looked at her bathtub. A friend of hers next door had a better one and we decided to use that. We heated pots of milk on the stove and poured them into the bathtub and Whoopi got in. I didn’t know how it was going to look, but I kind of thought that she would be sitting up in the bath and scrubbing herself. She sat back, and suddenly we had a very strong image. It was a total surprise.” (p. 61-62)

Annie Leibovitz: On Advertising

“Advertising work did not come naturally to me. It was against the grain of the West Coast art-school philosophy that I’d started out with.” (p. 64)

In fact she’d been proud of having not accepted advertising work, but in the early 1980s then art director of Vanity Fair, Ruth Ansel, talked her into it. “I tried some advertising jobs, only to find them as confusing as I had imagined they would be. Attempting to follow a client’s directions altered my point of view. It just felt wrong.” (p. 64-7)

The first time an advertising gig clicked for her, she says, was a 1987 American Express campaign. Parry Merkley, art director at Ogilvey and Mather told her “this campaign was going to be different,” she says. “It was a portrait campaign and I would have the freedom to do what I wanted to do.” (p. 67)

Between 1987 and 1992, Annie photographed one hundred three prominent individuals, the first of which was newly retired former-Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill:

Tip O

Tip O’Neill for American Express, by Annie Leibovitz 1987

The campaign won numerous awards, including the Clio, and was named the year’s Best Advertising Campaign by Advertising Age. The relationship was clearly a profitable one for both because Annie is still photographing celebrities for the credit card company:

Tina Fey for American Express by Annie Leibovitz

Tina Fey for American Express by Annie Leibovitz, July 2008

What do you think of when you think of Annie Leibovitz’s work? Her early photojournalism, her recent fashion photography, celebrity portraits, or something else?

Stay tuned for part two of Annie Leibovitz, next week.

Kate Watson

Artist of the Week: Annie Leibovitz, part II » - […] Last week I began profiling America’s celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz for my Artist of the Week series. Over time, as the post grew longer and longer, I realized I was going to have to split it over two posts. […]