Annie Leibovitz, the Grand Dame of colourful, staged portraits
Album covers, countless magazine features and the iconic glossy celebrity portraits she took – there are many ways one can know the work of Annie Leibovitz. With her latest book, which gives a unique behind-the-scenes perspective on how all those iconic pictures came to be, it’s time to have a look at the career of the lady who has become just as famous as the people she portrays.
Annie Leibovitz was born as Anna-Lou Leibovitz in 1949 and would pick up photographing when she studied at the San Francisco Art Institute. Photographers like Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson heavily influenced “Annie” in this period, which would lead to her first publication in Rolling Stone Magazine.
The story of that first publication shows the talented perspective Leibovitz had from the beginning: she was still in school when she showed a picture she took of beatnik poet Alan Ginsberg, who smoked pot at an anti-Vietnam demonstration. When she showed this picture to the creator of Rolling Stone Magazine, she was hired straight away and her picture made it to the front of the next issue of the magazine.
From then onwards, she would work as a contributing photographer until she became Rolling Stone’s chief photographer at the age of 23. She portrayed The Rolling Stones, Elton John and Bob Dylan. With the rock ‘n roll photographs also came a rock ‘n roll lifestyle, so when Vanity Fair asked her to be their chief photographer, Leibovitz started working for the more mainstream glossy magazine.
Leibovitz would continue to portray artists, but because Vanity Fair gave her a carte blanche (money was no issue), she could experiment more. It was then that the artist would also take extravagant pictures, not in black and white but in color, boasting heavily staged dramatic scenes we’ve come to know so well.
“If I had to describe Leibovitz’s work in one word, it would be: insane!” MENDO’s Mikel says. “Her photography record is extensive, her photographs are iconic. I think that’s what she is going for: even intimate portraits are large productions, shot in a studio. That having said, she still knows how to capture someone’s essence. Pictures of Donald and Melania Trump in their plane, Kim and Kanye in their bathroom, a shirtless Iggy Pop – all of them match the image I have of those celebrities.”
‘When I take a picture I take 10 percent of what I see.’
‘When I take a picture I take 10 percent of what I see.’
The early 2000s brought Leibovitz highlights, but also some very low points. At the age of 51, she gave birth to her daughter Sarah in 2001. A few years later, the photographer heard that her partner Susan Sontag once again suffered from leukemia, which would lead to her death in the end of 2004. In the same period, she lost her father, and three years later her mother passed away.
It was around this time, in 2007, that the world would learn about Leibovitz’s huge debts. Although she would make a lot of money with her photography, Leibovitz found herself in $24 million in debt. “The former money problems she had ten years ago are an interesting part of her life, I think,” says Mikel, “but it kind of undermines her work.” And indeed, apart from the debts and lawsuits, Leibovitz also flourished in this period of time, winning several important photography awards.
Through the years, many of Leibovitz’s photographs have been bundled in extraordinary photo books. “I love the Taschen SUMO limited edition, of which there are only 9,000 signed and numbered copies,” Mikel says. “But also ‘Portraits’, a collection of her best work with some added newer photography, is very interesting. ‘The Early Years’ is interesting because it shows her completely different way of working, back in the day. And of the other books, I like ‘Grace’, because it boasts more of her recent work.”
And now, there also is a ‘behind the scenes’ book, called ‘Annie Leibovitz at work’, in which the photographer provides the stories and technical descriptions of how some of her most famous images are created. The book contains a mixture of photojournalism, studio work, photographs of dancers and athletes and makes the transition from shooting with film to working with digital cameras. Originally published in 2008, this revised and updated edition brings Leibovitz’s bestselling book back into print.
Mikel is very interested in the ‘at work’ book, as he can keep on wondering how Leibovitz’s iconic pictures were made. “With her work, there’s no such thing as coincidence or luck. This is not a question of pressing the shutter button on the right moment – clicking is the last factor of the process,” he says. “That’s why the newest publication is interesting: similar to looking at a piece of art, it’s firstly interesting to see what the effect on the onlooker is. But once you’re familiar with the work itself, you’ll want to learn more about how it came to be.”
Although her last book is not a follow up on her previously published ‘Annie Leibovitz: The Early Years 1970-1983’, ‘Annie Leibovitz: Photographs, 1970-1990’, ‘A Photographer’s Life, 1990-2005’ and ‘Annie Leibovitz: Portraits 2005-2016’, her new book shows yet again why Leibovitz is one of the most influential photographers of our time. “Overall, you could say that one doesn’t just browse through a Leibovitz book,” Mikel says “because every page evokes multiple thoughts.” We couldn’t agree more.
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A visual journey through two decades of sharing the love for books. Not a chronological story, nor the entire story, but it characterises MENDO's journey since 2002.