Judging by the crowd outside of Benaroya Hall waiting to seeAnnie Leibovitz speak on November 19th, it was obvious that Seattle Arts and Lectures was hosting someone big. People stood outside with handmade signs asking for tickets—the scene was more akin to a sporting event or rock concert than what was, essentially, a book reading. Inside, there were more hopefuls hovering about the Will Call lines making jokes and talking with those who were waiting to pick up tickets to the sold out event. The line for signed copies of Leibovitz’s new book, Annie Leibovitz at Work, was long and did not disperse until moments before the talk was about to begin. The excitement was palpable, and Annie Leibovitz proved that she was a bona-fide celebrity, not just someone who takes pictures of them.
Annie Leibovitz’s list of subjects reads like a who’s who of pop and art culture over the past 40 years. Her portfolio is diverse and she has gained every type of fan along the way. The reception after the lecture at the W hotel downtown was a mix of young hipsters, photography students, older groups discussing when they first saw their favorite images published, and various press and general celebrity seekers. Part of the reason Leibovitz is so popular is that she was in the right place at the right time: she was hired on at a fledgling Rolling Stone magazine after sending in a photo of ladders in an apple orchard. This job allowed her the access to always be around what was happening even when it wasn’t a happy event—her famous John Lennon and Yoko Ono pictures were taken a mere five hours before he was killed. In addition to her fortuitous timing, Leibovitz has had her fair share of controversy—the recent Miley Cyrus shoot comes to mind along with other gossip headlines over the years. Annie Leibovitz knows what people want to see and she knows how to make it interesting. Her ability to push the envelope in an intelligent way is what has kept her name at the top of the list over the past 4 decades.
Annie Leibovitz At Work is a collection of about 100 photos from her career along with the stories of how the images came about and Annie’s own comments and thoughts about the subject, the impact on her career, and that time in her life. At Benaroya Hall Annie selected some of her favorites to share with the audience and then read excerpts from the accompanying text in the book. If we are to judge Annie Leibovitz’s personality based on her work one would guess that she has a wicked sense of humor as well as a keen eye for seeing the artistic potential in the everyday. Some of her most famous photos: Whoopi Goldberg in a bathtub of milk, Arnold Schwarzenegger posed like a conqueror on a white horse, The cast of The Sopranos re-enacting The Last Supper all have a tongue-in cheek sort of humor within them. Leibovitz strays from the style of photography that focuses only on the subject and has fun with all the elements of a photo highlighting the importance of a particular pose, stance, or prop. “I don’t mind doing something obvious,” she has told the New York Times and perhaps this is what makes her a great American icon. Americans have a taste for the obvious joke, but Leibovitz manages to make those jokes in an unexpected way. Leibovitz refers to it as “placing her subjects in the center of an idea. It didn’t have to be a big idea. It could be simple—the argument could be made that the simpler the idea, the better.” Annie Leibovitz realizes that having your picture taken is an invasive thing. Her pictures of celebrities are so popular exactly because she uses this and allows the subject to be seen in a different way—she makes them comfortable by giving them a role.
In person, Leibovitz is just as funny. She thanked University of Washington professor Jessica Burstein for introducing her by saying “I have never heard my name pronounced so correctly so many times.” Throughout the evening, Leibovitz was well spoken and clear in a way that was unrehearsed and relaxed.Being on stage with all eyes on her is obviously not her favorite thing to do, but she was easily inspired by her pictures and often set down her notes in order to tell a story about the subject or the experience. She had particularly colorful stories about her earliest days in the business chronicling the Rolling Stones on tour. “I learned about power on that tour,” she says. “I found that my proximity to them [Mick Jagger and Keith Richards] lent me power also. A new kind of status. It didn’t have anything to do with my work. It was power by association.” Leibovitz went on to explain that at this point in her career she thought that to get good shots she should, as much as possible, become seamless with her subjects’ world. Eventually, she realized that The Rolling Stones “were not the best group of guys to ‘become one’ with” and started to understand her role as a photographer. She learned that she needed to step back from her subjects and focus on her work, not the rock-and roll lifestyle. In At Work she says, “The thing that saved me was that I had my camera by my side…It separated me from them.”
She learned similar lessons from her work with Hunter S. Thompson, saying “He didn’t want a photographer around, he pushed me away,” but Leibovitz thinks that in a way, “he helped me to see.”By seeing that her career would always make her an outsider, a documenter, when it came to pictures that were not posed Leibovitz saw that she had the power to choose She was the one who chose the things that she photographed or the things that she did not and these choices allowed her to create the images that she found to be most artistic or effective. Many of her photos focus on the “little moments” rather than the big ones, “A lot can be told in those moments between the main moments,” she says. Her shots of the carpet being rolled up after Nixon’s resignation, people crowding around the murder site during the O.J. Simpson trial, or of Barack Obama waiting in the wings during the primaries all hold the quality of being viewed by a silent observer that many photographers would miss. This is where Annie Leibovitz’s news photos gain their power.
Annie Leibovitz is a rock star—even if she never set out to be one. She is the most easily recognizable of contemporary American photographers and she is constantly creating new and interesting work for Vanity Fair, Vogue, and various advertising campaigns. By making her images consumable to the masses she has given us art that anyone can look at, not just people in museums. Her name generates excitement whenever it is attached to a project and, at this point in her career, it seems also to add an automatic legitimacy: this is art, done by a true American artist. With several books under her belt and Vanity Fair and Vogue both publishing huge coffee table portrait collections this holiday season, Leibovitz’s work is only going to become visible in more and more homes. At Workseems to be Annie’s chance to tell us her own story with words as well as images. One of the first things that she admitted during her reading was that she is not very good with words. Leibovitz tells that Susan Sontag, her partner until her death in 2004, was the one who always helped her figure out what to say. This new book is, in part, a way for Leibovitz to reconcile her life and her voice without Sontag’s presence. “Susan helped me with my own voice for many years,” she said, “and when she died I had to find my own voice—which is not a bad thing.” Leibovitz, however, is forgetting the fact that on her way to becoming an icon of American photography, she has shared her very distinct voice with the public over the years. Her images reveal her to be playful, thoughtful, intelligent, and above all she shares her unique perspective on history as it happens. Annie Leibovitz has manufactured her own power—and this time it has everything to do with her work.
Annie Leibovitz at Work is available now.
Seattle Arts and Lectures will be hosting Michael Pollan on January 12, 2009