The living legend lets JVibe in on how she became the photographer we all know and admire.
Annie Leibovitz is undoubtedly one the most famous and recognizable photographers in the world. Her celebrity portraits have graced the covers of Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair since before you were born, but just like a rock star’s leather jacket or a vintage pair of heels, they’ll never go out of style.
Born into a close-knit Jewish family of eight in Connecticut, Annie spent five months of her junior year of college living on a kibbutz in northern Israel. She photographed her experiences there, and after returning to school in California, she sent her photos of the kibbutz to Rolling Stone. The magazine’s founder was impressed by Annie’s photos. And, as Annie tells us, “The rest is history!”
Whether she’s photographing Jewish comedians Ben Stiller and Jack Black for a cover of Vanity Fair or Woody Allen in a pink-tiled bathroom, her photographs always convey the personalities of her subjects. Not only is she an outstanding artist; Annie also supports several Jewish charities, has been recognized by Jewish organizations for her outstanding achievements and has been involved with youth programs throughout her life.
What’s it like shooting celebrities?
That’s so strange to me. I hate the word “celebrity.” I’ve always been more interested in what people do than who they are, and I hope that my photographs reflect that. I have the opportunity to work with people who are the best actors and writers, athletes and dancers—a broad spectrum. I feel like I’m photographing people who matter, in one way or another.
Isn’t it hard to capture your subjects’ whole personality in one photograph?
What I’m doing as a photographer is getting a little tiny slice of them. Life is so much more complicated than this one-dimensional moment.
Why did you decide to pursue photography?
I wasn’t one of those people who always wanted to be a photographer and started when they were 12. For me, it came from wanting to do art, which is something I became aware of when I was at the San Francisco Art Institute in the 1960s. There was something wonderful about the whole process—the immediacy of taking pictures and the license it gave you to go out in the world.
Which photographers influence you?
The first book that made me realize what it meant to be a photographer was The World of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Robert Frank and Cartier-Bresson were the chief influences at the San Francisco Art Institute when I was there. Their style of personal reportage—taken in a graphic, very composed way—was what we were taught to emulate.
After I started working for Rolling Stone I became much more conscious of what was being done in magazines. The strongest graphic work was in the fashion magazines—Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar. And I started looking at Richard Avedon’s portraits. Avedon was a very important photographer in my life, a powerful example. He managed to ride both horses—he worked for magazines, and he still did his own work.
What is it like exhibiting very intimate photographs in your new book (A Photographer’s Life: 1990-2005)?
Every single image that one would have a possible problem with or have concerns about, I had them, too. This wasn’t a flippant thing. I made the decision that, in the long run, the book needed those pictures, and the fact that it came out of a moment of grief gave the work dignity.
You do a lot in black-and-white.
I’m much more comfortable in black-and-white. I learned on it. I can shoot black-and-white without a meter. But now black-and- white seems a little old-fashioned. I’m having a renewed interest in color.
Was it a hard transition to the age of digital photography?
There’s a freedom in shooting digitally. And I like the way it looks, even the flatness. It’s contemporary.
How do you feel about your personal work versus your commercial work?
[My personal work] is my most important work. It’s the most intimate. It tells the best story, and I care about it. You don’t get the opportunity to do this kind of work except with people who you love; people who will put up with you. They’re the people who open their hearts and souls and lives to you. I found myself totally taken over by the personal work.
How much of your career came from your upbringing?
Photography was always family based for me. My mother and father made eight-millimeter films when we were kids. And my mother made sure that there was an official family portrait every few years.
What’s your favorite photograph?
I don’t have a favorite photograph. It’s the body of work that’s important, and I think I understood this early on. When I go to galleries or museums I like to see retrospectives, a lifetime of an artist’s work. That’s when it becomes really interesting.
MICHELE is a teen journalist who freelances for several publications, including The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area. Michele loves New York and Saturday Night Live. Her role models are Gilda Radner, Golda Meir, her grandmom, mom and Aunt Sylvia.
This article was reprinted from JVibe magazine, the magazine for Jewish teens www.jvibe.com.
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