As much as the book is a celebration, it is also an act of self-validation, and a reassessment of Leibovitz’s work some four decades after she began shooting fashion.
Leibovitz started her career as a photojournalist at Rolling Stone in 1971, when the magazine was in its infancy. She was just 21 when her portrait of John Lennon made the cover. Her photographs helped shape the magazine and give it the unvarnished visual gumption it has become known for. In her 12 years at the magazine, she went on tour with the Rolling Stones, shot the final image of the Nixon presidency as the disgraced politician boarded a helicopter from the White House, and captured the iconic, much-copied image of John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
In the late 1970s, editor Clay Felker approached her to shoot the model Margaux Hemingway for New West, a Californian spin-off of New York Magazine. It was her first brush with fashion and, says Leibovitz, a revelation.
“One of the things about fashion is that models know what they’re doing and they like being photographed,” she says. “That was such a new thing for me. I felt like the dentist before that, you know, everyone hated me. To enter this world where people liked being photographed and would play along, I couldn’t believe it. It felt like I was cheating or something.”
Leibovitz’s best-known fashion photography has been for Vogue, usually executed in partnership with stylist Grace Coddington. The two have a successful and mutually respectful relationship, although they do not shy away from gently ribbing one another. Coddington has said that Leibovitz “tortures herself and everyone else” (while former Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter described her as “Barbra Streisand with a camera”).
“Grace is very tough,” laughs Leibovitz. “Every time I would work with her, it’s like starting from scratch. Grace likes to remind me that I don’t do a lot on set.”
That, of course, is not true.
The photographer’s influences have included everything from fairytales such as Hansel and Gretel to Harold Pinter’s Betrayal to the literary salons of Edith Wharton. In 2003, inspired by Alice in Wonderland, Leibovitz and Coddington created what is possibly the most famous fashion shoot of all time (certainly one of the most expensive), starring Natalia Vodianova as Alice, and designers including Viktor and Rolf, Tom Ford and Karl Lagerfeld as the supporting cast. The 22-page shoot, which took place in Paris, is both playful and reverent, showcasing 11 gowns specially commissioned for the shoot as well as inviting the reader to imagine the story of Alice anew.
This, says Leibovitz, is why she loves her job.
“I just love photography. I love how big it is and how broad it is, the way you can tell stories. I learnt very early on, at art school, that working with magazines in that world was going to be tough. But creating art to a deadline, doing something that matters, within the limits of a publication, is something that drives me.”
Even after more than 50 years, and photoshoots with presidents, first ladies, the Dalai Lama and the Queen, Leibovitz admits to being nervous every time she takes aim. “Oh sure! Of course,” she says. “I’m always nervous.” But, she adds, “Isn’t that the fun of it? You admire and respect people, and when you work with them, that is daunting.”
Like everyone, she says, she has “good and bad days”.
“Do things not work out? Sure. All the time. I take a few pictures a year that I love.”
What makes a great photograph is hard to define, she says, and sometimes it takes years for her to be able to look at a photograph and assess it objectively. “The photos, and my perception of them, do change over time,” she says. “You need distance from the images. Sometimes photographs take on different meanings, or become more or less relevant over time.”
Leibovitz is known for her prodigious research and tongue-in-cheek approach (that shot of Goldberg in the bath, for instance, was a nod to a joke the comedian had made during her stand-up days about a black woman who wanted to scrub off her skin). Still, she adds, “So much of it is chance. I was doing a shoot with Johnny Depp, and he was dating Kate Moss, and I said, bring her along. And that became a great shot.”
Ditto the singer Mary J. Blige. “We took some photographs, and then she was leaving and she had this coat on and was carrying this bag, and I said, ‘Wait a minute, come back’. Her whole demeanour had changed when she was leaving; she was tough as nails. It turned out she had a gun in her bag.” That was the shot.
Shooting Queen Elizabeth, too, was a lesson in opportunity. “The first time I photographed the Queen, I was talking to her assistant who had set the whole thing up. I said, ‘Why me? Why did I get picked?’ She said, ‘Well, you asked.’ I had written her a letter five years earlier. She was right, I had asked.” Persistence, she says, pays off – eventually.
Leibovitz has no plans to retire; actually, she still has a list of personalities she’d like to photograph. The week after we speak, she is meeting with her Vogue and Vanity Fair editors to discuss the ideas she has been germinating over lockdown.
“I’d love to shoot Angela Merkel,” she says. “I’ve been trying to shoot her for a few years now but her office keeps pushing it out, asking me to wait until she retires. And every time I see that she has had her photo taken by someone else, it drives me crazy.”
NEED TO KNOW
Annie Leibovitz: Wonderland by Annie Leibovitz, published by Phaidon, is available from all good bookstores. $125