Just Don't Call It a Retrospective

Jon Foro on January 11, 2018


 Annie Leibovitz, 2012. Picture credit: © Annie Leibovitz/Trunk Archive

Annie Leibovitz is far from finished.This shouldn't be a surprise: Since her start in 1970 as a photographer for Rolling Stone magazine, she has produced a body of work as remarkable for its vastness as it is for its distinctive vision and technique. And despite such a legendary career spanning almost five decades--including iconic contributions to Vanity Fair, Vogue, and numerous independent projects--Annie Leibovitz: Portraits 2005-2016 proves that she's not slowing down.

Like previous collections (1970-1990, 1990-2005) the range of subjects contained in this latest volume staggers. From giants of popular culture (Lin-Manuel Miranda, LeBron James) to barrier-breakers (Gloria Steinem, Serena and Venus Williams) to the heroic (Malala Yousafzai) and the powerful (Queen Elizabeth II, the Trumps, Barack Obama, and... Oprah Winfrey?), Leibovitz captures either something essential or revelatory about each, sometimes both--even when the object of her lens happens to be inanimate, such as Virginia Woolf's writing desk and Elvis Presley's shot-out television.

So as I said, Annie Leibovitz is far from finished, and she'll tell you so. We sat with Leibovitz briefly in December, when a short tour brought her to Seattle. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

You've done retrospectives and thematic collections, and this obviously captures images from 2005 to 2016....

I'm not a big fan of the word retrospective--I'm a working photographer and I'm still going. What these are, they're sort of stopping and taking a look back. But I hope to have a few more years. I'm trying to eke out a few more years. [laughs]

When I decided to do it, I had a pretty large accumulation of work from 2005. I was kind of surprised, because usually I like it to be about 15 or 20 years, and this was a little shorter. I had so much work. I had all this work I'd done on updating the WOMEN project. I had the work from Pilgrimage. I had a series on artists in their studios. I had work that I really love that I wanted to stop and just assess.

I've heard that you had a different idea for this book.

When I realized that I was going to put the work together, it was August of 2016--three months before the election. I had this idea: Oh my gosh, when Hillary Clinton wins, I'm going to photograph her in the White House, in the Oval Office. That will be the end of the book, which will really be a new beginning. And then the election happened, and it was just devastating to me. I didn't really have an ending anymore. I actually called my publisher [Phaidon] and said I don't think I can do this book. It was kind of the jewel in the crown for the women's project, this extraordinary punctuation. I never came up with a good ending. It just doesn't really have any kind of point at the end.

I went to see Bruce Springsteen on Broadway, and I loved it because he says This is a chapter. So I like to think of it that way. I think great things are being done every single day. There's a lot of terrible things happening, but we're making our way. I just think we're more aware than we've ever been, as a people, and we're going to right ourselves. I believe that.


 Bruce Springsteen on tour, Paris, 2016.
Picture credit: © Annie Leibovitz/Trunk Archive

I'm curious about how you enter a shoot. How much direction do you give your subject?

I'm not a good director; I think I'm a good observer. And so I do rely on who they are, where we are, what's going on. I'm not as comfortable in the studio. I'm always worried about how I'm going to take the photograph. The people are certainly part of it, but they're not the main obstacle.

It's more like, is it raining, is the sun out, where are we.... I wouldn't still be doing this if I didn't think that every single day was sort of an adventure and had its different issues. My daughters tell me this all the time, [that] I'm so negative, I'm always thinking of the worst things that can happen. As you get older, it doesn't get easier. You're not walking in more relaxed. You're actually thinking about all the things that can go wrong.

What was the break that got you into Rolling Stone?

I was going to school at the San Francisco Art Institute. What I would do while attending class is take photographs during the day, go back to the darkroom that afternoon, and process your film and print it immediately--you're looking at your work right away. It was a pretty normal day, I had gone out--there was a [Vietnam war] demonstration, this was maybe 1970--and I had developed the work and printed it. My boyfriend at the time said "You should bring this over to Rolling Stone." He actually took me over and dropped me off out in front and left me there.

[They] saw the work and they loved it--they wanted me to start working for them. Coming from a fine arts school and an art background, it was really different to start taking photographs on demand, as opposed to when you felt moved to take a picture. But I think that's been my struggle, which is of course what creates the work, that this idea of trying to do something that matters and that's good, even in a more commercial landscape. It's always a battle. Sometimes it feels like a losing battle. It feels like, Oh my God, you're verging on advertising, especially when you work with magazines. And there are moments that are unforgettable and you feel like you broke ground.

Is there someone that you haven't photographed that you would like to?

Having done this over 47 years, I mean... I didn't realize people went away. You didn't know that people weren't going to be there. When you're young you think everyone's going to be around. Someone like Martha Graham, I would have loved to have photographed. She was still alive when I moved to New York, and I didn't do it.

I went searching for a piece of her. I was actually looking for her costumes. The company allowed me to go look at the storage room in Yonkers, and I walked in... I couldn't believe it. There were Noguchi sets against the wall and all the trunks from her time. It was really incredible.

Are there current or up-and-coming photographers that you follow, that you're enthusiastic about?

You know, I really mean this: the journalism in the New York Times. I'm up at 5:30, 6 in the morning, and I go to the door and get the newspaper and I look at how they place the picture on the cover. It's really photojournalism I've been looking at and riveted by right now.

Are you a digital convert?

Let me put it this way: I don't try to hold on when something comes along that is inevitable. I saw that digital was going to be the state of the art. I have a funny story from 1978, I think. They took Kodachrome off the market, and some of my photographer friends ran out and bought boxes of it and put it their refrigerators, trying to hold onto it. Like other photographers, I do mourn the loss of film--there's something so magical about seeing a print come up in the darkroom. But this was going to happen. Like every other photographper, I'm trying to figure out how to use it.

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