Interview with Annie Leibovitz by Peter Adams
From the book: Who shot that by Peter Adams.
I gave up trying to be a journalist. I thought having a point of view was more important than being objective. People buy ideas, they don’t buy photographs. -ANNIE LEIBOVITZ, NEW YORK, 1992.
Peter Adams: Annie sat opposite me. The red-eye back from California had left her tired. An office desk and three telephones separated us and interrupted us continuously. Beyond the closed door, her studio, a large staff and a hive of activity. Carpenters building sets, personal assistants trying to get her time; a publicity bloke doing what publicity blokes do and assistants doing what assistants do.
It was a mad house.
‘I can’t photograph you here’ I said, ‘isn’t there some where quiet?’
‘On the roof’ Said Annie.
‘It’s raining!’ I said.
‘Let’s go!’ said Annie.
‘How do you want me?’ she asked when we arrived.
“I’m interested in you nose!” I said.
‘Cheeky sod!” she replied.
And that’s where I photographed her.
On her roof. In the pouring rain. An assistant holding an umbrella for me. Annie with her coat over her head.
Annie Leibovitz: How I got started? How I got started? I always knew I wanted to be an artist of one sort or another. I painted in high school and I enjoyed it very much. But I really wasn't that good. I was a better sketcher. I liked line drawings.
I went to San Francisco Art Institute as a painting major. Like many kids, when I was seventeen or eighteen years old I was impatient. I wanted fast results and photography was more immediate. I could have an idea or see something and I could see the results right away developing in the tray.
Painting wasn't fast enough.
Painters going through Art Schools in the late sixties and early seventies were an angry group of people. Everything was abstract and angry. The Vietnam war was happening, Nixon was President and everyone was vrooooom-splat, blobs, strokes, and lots of paint and angriness. I didn't feel like I fitted in. For one thing I was too young to think abstractly. I wanted things more literal. I wasn't ready for an abstract life.
Photography just felt more natural. But you can't forget that during those formative years, the people who surround you heavily influence your life. In my case, my mother. She was a dancer who got married when she was seventeen. She never danced professionally but she always danced. If she couldn't find a class to take she ended up teaching a class herself.
My father was in the US Air Force.
We had a strange family configuration, in that we travelled all over the country. Six kids and mum and dad. Every couple of years we moved on. Somewhere else.
I grew up in the back of a station wagon. One of my first photographs, where I first realised I wanted to take-up photography as a career, was a picture I did on a beach. A person is running down the beach, a bird flying in the shot somewhere. But it's taken through the frame of a car door window so the edge of the car window is the edge of the print.
Moving around was great.
Every time we moved somewhere I could be someone different. It was an unrealistic way to live, of course, but I was never lonely. I created a far greater fantasy world because of it. I looked forward to the next move so I could be somebody else. I never realised till much later that you really would see people again. You really could keep in contact with old friends!
Portrait work is the quick encounter where you are not going to know the subject for very long.
My childhood equipped me really well for my portrait work. In the kind of assignment work I did for magazines like Rolling Stone I had to go in and meet people and become (sort of) intimate right away and then leave. All in the space of 30-40 minutes.
In the early days I found it was difficult getting to know the subjects. The photographs were always better than the experience of making them. Twenty years ago, doing an assignment for 'Life' magazine, a photographer would go and live with the subject for as long as they would let them stay. Sometimes, as in the case of Eugene Smith on the 'Country Doctor' assignment, for six weeks. 'Life' magazine doesn't exist in that way any more. A photographer is lucky to get a couple of hours.
People say: "Oh it looks like you're having such a great time in your photographs". In reality it's more often a nightmare and complete panic and hysteria. But that's what's interesting about photographing people.
I am much more comfortable with the fifteen-minute relationship than I am with life-long relationship.
The Christo photograph happened at a time when I was doing the most contrived of The Work. The late seventies, early eighties. When I was doing the Rolling Stone covers. I was in love with doing the covers of Rolling Stone. It was just a lot of fun. I was always trying to do something exceptional and trying to out-do myself with each issue. I learned fast that the most obvious thing often makes the best visual. Painting the Blues Brothers blue or wrapping up Christo.
Contrary to what several people have suggested, the Christo image wasn't about death, it really was about something visual that hopped-off the magazine page, something that threw you and made you think when you looked at it. The most obvious thing in the world seemed to be to wrap Christo. I couldn't believe he had never been asked to do it. Afterwards he told me people had asked him and he'd said no, but he did it for me anyway. I can't say why.
When I look at the picture now, I can't stand the way he's wrapped. At that time I had a friend who was a fashion designer and I asked her to come and help me. But it's so, you know, so designer-y.
I'm more careful now. When I use a concept in a portrait. Before I do, the idea has to make a lot of sense. I've seen concept photography misused by a lot of people. Things like fully dressed people jumping into swimming pools for no reason at all. I don't think I've ever misused conceptual photography. There has never been 'no reason' for my pictures, there's always some thought behind it, a connection.
Magazine assignments have changed.
I no longer have the opportunity to just let things just happen in their own time; I have become a director. I used to be so constricted, so myopic as to what my original idea was. I would miss other things. Now I'm completely crazed because, while I never go into a shoot without an idea, I always go in desperately hoping that something better will materialise in front of me.
It's interesting to have gone through a period of learning to direct, because now when I see things that aren't working too well, I'm not afraid to move things about a little bit and keep the shoot going. To me, it doesn't matter that I have to shift the furniture and change the reality of the room. It's still their room. I agree with Arnold Newman: Photography is 5% inspiration, 95% moving furniture.
I like to think a portrait can be strong enough not to need a caption. No matter who that person is. You can't underestimate the power of the person in the photograph and, reluctantly, I'd have to say that sometimes it helps to know who the person is; but for a photograph to be successful it should be giving me some information about the person without knowing that person's name.
The best way to learn photography is to pick a single subject and concentrate on photographing that. If you are interested in portrait work pick someone you love and photograph only them for six months. It's all about taking something to its completion. When I was learning, Ralph Gibson wouldn't let me come out of the dark room until I printed that one print that was perfect.
I would like to spend more time on projects that are important to me. The Dance Project was important to me because it showed me the luxury of what it was like to spend three weeks on one assignment. The project is concerned with the whole community of dance and it mushrooms and mushrooms and mushrooms. Every time Barishnakov (?) does another project he wants me to work with him.
The problem is I want to do everything, and everything right now is such a great time for me except that I don't have any time. I want to do at least one project like this each year. Ultimately I would love to be just doing those kinds of things all year long.
One of the things about my work at this point is I'm shooting pictures that probably can never appear in magazines. They're not page-turners. They are photographs you have to sit and look at for a while. That luxury doesn't exist with magazines these days.
Eventually my legs will be really fat and I'll be in a wheel chair and then I'll have all the time I could want but, for the moment while I can still walk around, I have to live inside my work.
By Peter Adams