Annie Leibovitz on Fame and Her Advice from the Queen

Lucy Davies talks to iconic photograper Annie Leibovitz

Annie Leibovitz, New York City, 2012 © Annie Leibovitz.

The entrance to the old power station in Wapping, east London, is far wider than the average doorway, yet when I arrive it is almost completely blocked. Across the steps, lying propped on one elbow, is all six feet of Annie Leibovitz, posing gamely for a picture. “How’s this?” she asks, laughing, turning her head, “or this?”

Later that morning, when we sit down to speak in front of her exhibition inside, I notice the dusty imprint of those steps on the back of her clothes. It seems oddly touching, but fitting perhaps, for someone who has, since her first cover for Rolling Stone magazine in 1970, placed herself entirely in the service of her craft, sometimes to the detriment of her equilibrium (more of which later).

It also seems only fair. Annie, after all, is well known for persuading some of our most famous names to adopt striking and surprising poses: Whoopi Goldberg in a bath of (warmed) milk; John Cleese hanging from a tree like a bat; a pregnant Demi Moore, wearing nothing but a 30-carat diamond ring.

From celebrities to intellectuals to dignitaries and leaders, the list of her subjects goes on and then some. Just last year she photographed the cast of Star Wars, Adele, Caitlyn Jenner, Angelina Jolie, Mark Zuckerberg, Rihanna, Amy Schumer and Senator Elizabeth Warren. “As I get older I understand my role in it all,” Leibovitz tells me. “The power of the body of the work; it has such a weight, a story.” It’s hard to disagree: Annie’s portfolio could serve as a record of our times.

Has she noticed an increase in our appetite for celebrity over the years? “Honestly, it’s about the same as it’s always been,” she says, “but with the internet, there are so many more places to put news and pictures. We feel the need to create celebrities just to fill the space.”

Don’t expect criticism of her subjects. Annie, whose day rate is said to be between $100,000 and $250,000, is as discreet as they come. “There certainly are people who are a pain to work with,” she has said. “I’d be crazy to name them.

You can’t be indiscreet in this business.” And don’t call her a celebrity photographer. “I can’t stand the word celebrity. It’s such a brash word. I do work for magazines [chiefly Vogue and Vanity Fair] that have a lot of celebrities in them, but I photograph people from all walks of life, and I photograph people because I am interested in what they do,” she says.

Up close, her face is curiously unlined, her skin delicate but taut, her teeth white. Her hands are huge: thick-fingered, paw-like and strong, the only physical evidence of her notoriously steely resolve. (One Annie shoot reportedly went on for 16 hours straight, keeping its subject up through the night until the photographer was happy.)

And the shoots, such as Vanity Fair’s annual “Hollywood” cover (inclusion in which is the ultimate status symbol in the film world) can be huge productions, employing scores of people. And yet, Annie admits she doesn’t always find this kind of work fulfilling.

“As fantastic as it is to have Vogue and Vanity Fair as places to work, I don’t often get to shoot the kind of things I like to photograph, in the way I like to photograph,” she says. “I think because, recently, magazines were going through this period of not knowing if they are going to survive or not, there was this exasperated moment of groping towards what sells, what sells, oh, sex sells, and I think we’re better than that — the audience is smart.”

Annie will not give specific examples but it’s fair to assume she has covers like the 2006 picture of fashion designer Tom Ford lounging next to a naked Keira Knightley and Scarlett Johansson in mind.

“I didn’t feel myself when I took those pictures — sometimes I felt worse than that,” she says. “But in the last year or so there’s been sort of a regrouping; an understanding that magazines don’t sell on news-stands anymore anyway, so we can go back to taking more interesting kinds of pictures. It’s exciting.”

Her portrait of Caitlyn Jenner last year, which sparked the media furore around Bruce Jenner’s sex change, was, she says, “a little bit tongue-in-cheek in that respect. It was a pun on your usual Vanity Fair cover. You looked at it and thought, ‘Oh who’s that?’ Because Jenner looked incredible.

I felt such a responsibility, helping her emerge as this new person. We did a lot of research, pictures of Lauren Bacall and Katharine Hepburn. You have to understand that because she wasn’t born a woman, this was going to be an acquired look, and it could easily fall into drag queen, but she was quick to understand: she was so empowered, hyper, even.”

The picture has also been added to Annie’s passion project, Women. Begun in 1999, in collaboration with her partner, the late Susan Sontag, Women is a loose collection of portraits — from Hillary Clinton to Louise Bourgeois, via Oprah, Liz Taylor and Joni Mitchell — whose subjects have nothing in common other than that they are women.

The second instalment, which forms the crux of her current show, adds a new set of faces. As before, they include a cross-section of achievement in all walks of life. The comic actresses Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham, and singer Adele are there, but alongside Jenner, Aung San Suu Kyi and Rupert Murdoch’s ex-wife, Wendi Deng.

They are markedly different from the conceptual, fantasy-led aesthetic; much more straightforward, and searching, and an attempt by the photographer to tackle a subject — female identity — that is close to her heart.

“Particularly since having my children [Annie has three daughters, Sarah, 14, and twins Susan and Samuelle, 10] I feel the responsibility of doing something with [my fame]. Women is definitely part of that,” she says.

Anna-Lou Leibovitz was born in Westbury, Connecticut, in 1949. Her father was in the air force, her mother a housewife, and Annie and her five siblings enjoyed a peripatetic life. Eventually, she ended up at the San Francisco Institute of Art and, while there started working for Rolling Stone. Along with jobs with Hunter S Thompson and Tom Wolfe, Leibovitz got to photograph inside the White House and went on tour with the Rolling Stones, during which she “did everything you’re supposed to do on tour with the Rolling Stones”.

A stint in rehab and a move to New York later, Annie came under the wing of Vanity Fair. It was here she began experimenting with conceptual covers — Bette Midler covered in roses, Meryl Streep in white make-up. “She came in and talked about how she didn’t want to be anybody, she was nobody, just an actress ... I suggested that maybe she would like to put on whiteface. To be a mime. That set her at ease. She had a role to play.”

Queen Elizabeth II, was harder to put at ease. Before taking her photograph in 2007, Annie spent months researching settings and clothing and how previous portraits had been lit and posed. “I told the Queen how much I admired Cecil Beaton, and that I was modelling the picture after his, and she said: ‘You must make your own way, dear.’ She was mad at me for taking in so much equipment. Apparently the Queen has this other photographer who only comes with one paper bag of stuff. She likes her so much she helps move the furniture! I love that.”

Following a period she has referred to as “tough times” — in which both her father and Sontag died and lavish spending in her private life led to her narrowly missing filing for bankruptcy — she is now on firmer footing.

Does she have a life philosophy? “Not really. Work hard, be with your family. It doesn’t really add up to anything I’d embroider on a pillow,” she laughs.

“I try to be home for dinner, but I’m not there enough. I sometimes feel I’m still fumbling, getting it wrong, but I make my way.”

— The Sunday Telegraph

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