From Rolling Stone to Vanity Fair, Annie Leibovitz’s covers and pictures have travelled the world, with the American photographer becoming nearly as famous as the people she snaps. As a retrospec— tive of twenty years of her work reaches the National Portrait Gallery, Pierre Perrone went along to get some pointers.
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Annie Leibovitz by Matthew Rolston and ‘I like to be photographed in black and white. Keep it simple, straightforward.
nnie Leibovitz remembers her ‘first frame being the car windshield. looking down the highway’. It’s not an obvious progression from gazing down the Connecticut hardtop to becoming America’s most acclaimed portrait photog- rapher. but that is Leibovitz’s current status. Her pictures capture the essence of the USA’s showbiz elite. from Jodie Foster to Miles Davis. Springsteen to Ali. a grand tour of cultural Americana.
‘l was born in Connecticut but my great-grandparents were Russian Jews.’ she remembers. ‘My father joined the Air Force and we got to travel all over the United States. living out of a station wagon. lt was a wonder- ful upbringing. I thought changing your environment and keeping on the move could solve all your problems.’
In 1970. while studying painting and photog- raphy at the San Francisco Art Institute. Leibovitz submitted a portfolio to Rolling Stone magazine and was swiftly hired by the then voice of the underground culture. ‘I was very young. only twenty. and l was not a rock ’n’ roll photographer. Back then. the hippie movement was really important and you didn’t even sell your work. When I started. there were not many magazines around. Rolling Stone was sort of unique. there was Time and Newsweek. Life magazine was not even in commission in the first five years of Rolling Stone. it had folded. People magazine came out in the middle 70s. It has been interesting to see this huge build-up of magazines over the last twenty years.’
In that time Leibovitz herself has perhaps done more than anyone to define the genre of celebrity photography. Her approach is a journalistic one. a million miles removed from the stalking paparazzi. ‘I really like to know something about the people I’m photographing so I do research. It’s easier now than it was then. If someone’s relatively well known, you can pick up from a computer all the stories that have
‘Words can’t express everything that
happens, pictures do a better job.’
been written about them in the last ten years.’
In I975, Leibovitz found herself on tour with The Rolling Stones. ‘Mick had asked me to document the whole thing, warts and all.’ she remembers. ‘ln spite of all the music assign- tnents I'd been on, I had no idea how music was made or how to get drugs. I went on the tour with a tennis racket. they all laughed at me so I was never seen in daylight again. I never let my camera down, to sort of remind everyone what I was there to do maybe even to remind myself. I
Close-"PS. PfObabIW wanted to deglam- ourise what it’s like to be on the road but it worked against me. I threw myself into it body and soul and wanted to get to the heart of the matter. Soon I wished I hadn’t gone quite so close. There is a lesson to be learned from that; you don’t always have to go right in there. A few feet away would have been sufficient. But you can see it in the work.’
Still. she can joke about the many pictures of Keith lying down. ‘ln fact. I have very few of’ him standing up. Leaning against a wall or a door doesn’t count. And this is Mick in an elevator going up or down after a concert. I also took a picture of his hand after he’d pushed it through a glass window. I think this inspired the song ‘The Hand Of Fate’. Mick was very supersti- tious.’ U2 asked her to go on the road with them a couple of years ago to do something similar, but she backed out after a couple of days. You can never go back.
The late 70s and early 805 were busy years for Leibovitz: ‘I wanted to outdo myself conceptu- ally every time I did a cover of Rolling Stone. A portrait is not just an illustration. you can have more going on to illustrate what the person is about.’ Appointed first contributing photogra- pher on Vanin Fair in 1983. playfulness become a part of her visual style. from shooting Lauren Hutton covered in earth and Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold mud-wrestling. Leibovitz explains she ‘did that one as a reaction to those two being in love. They couldn’t keep their hands off each other. They were rolling around on the floor and I said, “How about some mud- wrestling‘?” It seemed to describe their relation- ship. I loved the fact that she thinks she’s sexy and loves the way she looks. And [just had to capture Arnold Schwarzenegger on the horse he’d just bought. Their muscles and body structures were so identical.’
The photographer who specialises in the famous is bemused by her new-found celebrity. ‘I went to Washington to take some pictures of the Clinton inauguration and people in the street
3 The List 17—30 June I994