She’s photographed everyone from the Queen to Kim Kardashian and Donald Trump… Mick Brown meets Annie Leibovitz in New York
Annie Leibovitz is a tall, rangy, handsome woman with striking, aquiline features and an unruly shock of grey hair, who at first glance exudes a palpable air of can-do control and authority. Leib ovitz can, she admits, ‘be a terror’ – and one imagines that some measure of terror, or at least strength of will and power of persuasion, must be necessary to take the pictures that Leibovitz does.
For more than 45 years, through her work with Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and Vogue, she has been the foremost pictorial chronicler of power, fame and celebrity (a word she loathes, incidentally) in American life.
A new collection of her work, Annie Leibovitz: Portraits 2005-2016, is published later this month. A copy sits on the desk in her New York studio. (Two floors in an old industrial building in the Meatpacking District; a fleet of young and personable assistants.) With 150 images, it is formidable in its breadth, and its weight. (Leibovitz tends to do heavy: her 2006 book, A Photographer’s Life, weighed in at 9lb – so heavy, she says, ‘I couldn’t carry it anywhere to give it away to people.’)
This is Leibovitz in excelsis: movie and music stars, politicians and power brokers; the inevitable nudes – Lady Gaga splayed over a bed, and a rather simian Jeff Koons admiring himself in a mirror; as well as a panoply of less familiar characters and stilllifes from her Pilgrimage series of objects and places with historical resonance. It is a record not only of Leibovitz’s life as a photographer over 11 years, but of American life. And planning the book, she knew exactly where she wanted it to end.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, she had photographed Hillary Clinton numerous times – over the years she has come to know her well. And the final image was to be Clinton, triumphant, the first female president of the United States. Leibovitz had even been contemplating what desk in the White House the president-elect would choose to be sitting at for the portrait, hoping it would be one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s. And then she didn’t win. ‘It was just devastating,’ Leibovitz says. ‘Just shocking. Where we are now is supposed to be real, but it’s… unbelievable.’ She pauses, before saying of President Trump: ‘Every day, I’ll say, “What did he do today? What downtrodden group of people is he picking on today?”’ She sighs. ‘The man is just insane.’
In the wake of Clinton’s defeat, it took her a while ‘to brush myself off and pick myself up’. She even contemplated abandoning the book altogether. But in the end, after much deliberation, she decided to go ahead. The last photograph now is of the artist Robert Smithson’s gargantuan earthwork Spiral Jetty, with its strong resemblance to a question mark. ‘It’s saying, who are we? What are we doing?’ Leibovitz explains.
Her father, Sam, was a lieutenant colonel in the US Air Force; her mother, Marilyn, a modern dance instructor, who once performed with the Martha Graham company. It was while studying painting at the San Francisco Art Institute that Leibovitz took a night class in photography, and in 1970 she started working for Rolling Stone. Her first commissioned work for the magazine was photographing John Lennon. In 1980 she took the last ever portrait of him, just hours before he was shot dead.
In the Rolling Stone years she considered herself a documentarian, spending years on the road working with journalists, and photographing bands (most notably the Rolling Stones in 1975). When, in 1983, she moved to Vanity Fair – the ne plus ultra of high-sheen celebrity culture – things changed. The budgets grew bigger, the portraits more stylised. Two images in the new book epitomise this: Angelina Jolie, shrink-wrapped in silver
lamé, attached to the front of a microlight plane – like a figurehead on the prow of a ship – and, most extravagantly… ‘George Clooney?’ she jumps in.
Yes. An extraordinary image: Clooney tricked out like a 1920s Hollywood director-tyrant, afloat on a platform, surrounded by a host of women clad in nude underwear, brandishing cameras and klieg lights – an image that speaks volumes about Hollywood hubris and excess. But that, she says, was Tom Ford’s idea, when he was guest-editing a special Hollywood issue, based on a photograph of the film-maker Cecil B Demille at work. ‘And Clooney’s a really great guy. He gets a joke.’ But it’s the last of those ‘high production values’ pictures, she tells me. ‘I’m not saying I’m never going to do them, but I don’t look to do them unless they make sense.’ And one thinks that for Leibovitz they make sense less and less.
In her new book, the Hollywood glitz gives way to more contemplative pictures of artists, painters and musicians; the humanrights campaigner Malala Yousafzai; the author Joan Didion – lined, unvarnished and truthful, shot against leafless trees as if to signal the tragedy that has enveloped her life; the feminist human-rights lawyer Andréa Medina Rosas; and Samantha Power, the former US ambassador to the UN, cradling her son on her knee as she checks her Blackberry – a study in the conflicting demands of motherhood and professional power.
‘This is embarrassing,’ Leibovitz says, ‘but I think of myself as in a tradition of portrait photographers who photographed people of their time. There will always be people I want to photograph; and I like that there’s so much of it – that there’s a sense of history with this material. I think that’s powerful, and it’s beyond me. I’m in a place sometimes when I’m photographing somebody and I can’t believe it, and I feel like it’s my duty. I really do.’
She has photographed the Queen twice: firstly in 2007, in full regal attire inside state rooms in Buckingham Palace, to celebrate the monarch’s state visit to the United States. ‘I was thinking, “She’s going to be the Queen.” I was given catalogues to look
through to pick her tiara, her clothing… I was given options. I was given half an hour. And she was incredible. I remember after the shoot thinking, “My God, she’s so feisty.” I just love her.
‘You know the story on this. The BBC were doing a documentary on the Queen, and they did a trailer that made her look as if she was storming out of the shoot. The truth is, she was storming into the shoot. And she did not stop working until the end. She has this great, great sense of duty and she was so hurt and angry that it was made to look any other way.’
The second time Leibovitz was approached, to shoot the official portraits marking the Queen’s 90th birthday, she says she ‘couldn’t believe it’. This time, the photographs were taken at Windsor Castle, and were altogether more informal: the Queen with her corgis, with her grandchildren and with Princess Anne. ‘That’s what she wanted to do – and that’s what I did,’ Leibovitz says. ‘ There was no mention of Prince Charles.’ She laughs.
The portrait with Princess Anne is particularly revealing, Anne’s arm resting protectively around her mother’s shoulder. ‘I love that photo,’ Leibovitz says. ‘ It makes me cry, actually.’ ‘Intimidated’ is not quite the word, she says, but there is not a day when she is not nervous and worried about a shoot. ‘I’m photographing [former vice-president] Joe Biden this week and I’m nervous about it because I think he has a little bit of the Great White Hope on his shoulders right now, and I admire how he’s conducted his life. It’s wonderful to admire people and be interested in them in that way and have this responsibility of taking an image that suits them.’
She has photographed every American president since Richard Nixon, and enjoys a particular rapport with Clinton and Obama. Her new book includes a series of images of the Obama administration, including a striking image of Obama on his last day as president, shot from behind, gazing out of the window of the Oval Office, as if into an uncertain future. ‘I knew I was going to take the last portrait,’ she remembers, ‘and
‘The Queen was incredible. My God, she’s so feisty. I just love her’
we were trying to set up a date with the White House. Finally, they said, “OK, two o’clock, Thursday, the 19th January.” I said, “I’m sorry, isn’t that the last day he’s in office?”
‘It was amazing. I went in and he said, “Annie you have five minutes, and I’m only doing this because I love you.” We took that picture, and I took some others, of him sitting at his desk – but they’re just a little too sad for me.’ And what of his successor? She has photographed Donald Trump many times in the past. ‘I think,’ she says pointedly, ‘with every one of his wives along the way.’ And how has it gone? She shrugs. ‘You know, he’s always making a deal.’ In a photograph shot for American Vogue in 2006, Trump, unusually, settled for a supporting role, seated in a sports car as his wife, Melania, descends the steps leading down from the back of the Trump plane – pregnant and dressed in a gold bikini. ‘Our first lady…’ Leibovitz says, flatly.
Some of Leibovitz’s images over the years have been so blatant in their appraisal of the joy their subjects take in their wealth and position that you can’t help wondering if she intends them as satire. In this case it would probably be safe to assume she did. She hesitates when asked about when, where, or even if, she will photograph Trump as president – a hesitancy that suggests that, for Leibovitz, notwithstanding her sense of duty, this is as much a question of ethics as opportunity.
Contemplating the transformative possibilities of Leibovitz’s portraits, Graydon Carter, the outgoing editor of Vanity Fair, once spoke of her uncanny ability ‘to make boring white men who have desk jobs look epic’. ‘I’m not an edgy photographer,’ she says. ‘In some ways I wish I was, and think I should be tougher and have a more critical eye. But I like to like people, and as I get older, I like people to look as good as they can. I believe in the soul, and allowing the person to present themselves. What they want to present to the camera is really important to me, and I like to follow through for them, if I can. It’s hard to have your photograph taken. It’s a frightening experience for people because they have to sort of deal with themselves.’
T here can be few of Leibovitz’s subjects for whom it was more frightening than Caitlyn – formerly Bruce – Jenner, the Olympic athlete who famously, in 2015, publicly announced
Left to her own devices, she says, Jenner would have looked ‘like a drag queen’
her gender transition in an interview with Vanity Fair, with a cover portrait by Leibovitz. More than simply shooting a portrait, Leibovitz says she ‘felt like I was on a mission’ to help Jenner decide how she should present herself to the world. ‘It had nothing to do with the magazine cover or anything. She was so raw. [The writer] Fran Lebowitz said an amazing thing: with everything it involves, you can’t really be a woman unless you start at 12. It’s an acquired thing. So imagine: you’re right on the doorstep of this; you’re coming out, literally, metaphorically, whatever, and she was trying to sort out her look.’
Left to her own devices, Leibovitz says, Jenner would have looked ‘like a drag queen. I had to really keep it back. Just keeping her hair closer to her head – a simple thing like that. She wanted a big do. We had pictures of Lauren Bacall, Angelina Jolie – thousands of pictures on the wall. We looked at a lot of different pictures of how to look. To me it could have gone any which way. I did have one idea that you should look at the cover and you don’t know what movie star that is, and you’d have to take a second look to realise it’s who it is. But really the whole idea was to give her something that she could live with, and I was really happy we could do that.’
The Jenner issue went on to become one of the biggest-selling in the history of Vanity Fair. Leibovitz likens the attention and controversy her pictures attracted to that around her portrait of a pregnant Demi Moore. ‘We were astonished. But I think it was kind of a beautiful thing. She [Caitlyn] opened up and dealt with something that our society was just on the verge of trying to understand. It’s definitely more complicated. We are not just men and women; we have about five or six or seven different genders. It’s a kaleidoscope, who we are.’
For 15 years, probably the most important relationship in Leibovitz’s life was with Susan Sontag, the literary critic and one of America’s foremost public intellectuals, whom Leibovitz met when in 1989 she was sent to photograph her for her book Aids and Its Metaphors. Leibovitz was 40; Sontag, 56.
Leibovitz once said a deeply revealing thing about their relationship: that if she was going to be involved with Sontag, she knew that she was going to have to be ‘better – be a better photographer, be a better person’.
‘ That was a very conscious choice at the time,’ she says now, ‘that if Susan wanted to be involved with me, I sort of knew what I was getting myself into. I just didn’t have the ways and the means like Susan. I didn’t have the intellect like Susan. I didn’t know how I could keep up or even be with her. I remember going out to dinner with her the first time: I read The New York Times from front to back and I sweated through my clothes, worrying what to talk about. But she couldn’t have been more charming or put me more at ease.’
In a sense, Sontag was as much mentor as partner or friend. She broadened Leibovitz’s horizons, introduced her to new worlds. ‘The thing she insisted upon was that people experience things, be in the world, that we travel – and we did. I was
‘I’m a handful. I can’t imagine anyone putting up with me’
still a very surface person, and she insisted on depth, more depth. I did once ask her, give me 10 books to read. And she made a list. But I’m a very slow reader, a terrible reader. She would always get pissed at me for that.’ She laughs. ‘She once said, “If I read that slow I wouldn’t read either.”’
Sontag had written the collection of essays On Photography, one of the defining studies on the meaning of the medium. But curiously, perhaps, it was a subject they rarely discussed. ‘She never really told me how to take a picture, although she did once say to me, “Stop taking pictures of people in bed – just stop it! I don’t want to see another bed!”’ She laughs. ‘I think what she loved was that I was engaged in popular culture and doing that work. It was entertaining to her. And in its own way it was a big influence on her, but I don’t think in the long run I could be the person she was hoping or imagining I could be. She was just grander and larger than me.’ She pauses. ‘She was just a really great person.’ And did she make Leibovitz a better person? She laughs. ‘I’m not too sure she succeeded. Listen, she was a lot to live up to. I think when I stepped into it I thought I had my own territory and she had her territory; I think it was fine, but it got harder as time went on… And then she died. And that was hard. She didn’t die a nice death.’
Sontag died of cancer in 2004. You must miss her terribly, I say. ‘What I miss about her right now is that this time could have really used a voice like that. I remember things happening and she would say something that se emed completely right, and so obvious and that no one else had really noticed. Her sense of timing and her sense of observation – I miss all that.’
In 2009 Leibovitz experienced well-publicised financial trouble, after borrowing $24 million against her three homes and portfolio, and defaulting on the loan. (She always had a notoriously insouciant attitude to bookkeeping.) But bankruptcy, as she observed at the time, ‘is not death’. She refinanced the loans, selling her West Village house for $28.5 million and ‘downsizing’ to an $11.25 million apartment on the Upper West Side. ‘The best thing I ever did,’ she now says. ‘You just have to move on.’
Leibovitz has no partner. She has three daughters, one of 15, and 12-year-old twins, born by surrogate in 2005, five months after Sontag’s death. Being a single mother is ‘pretty hard’. She pauses. ‘I think it is a twoman job, and I didn’t quite take in what it meant to have help. I work so much, but the girls are great. Going to school’s a full-time job and they work really hard during the school year. And I have a very wonderful family – I’m one of six kids – so they have their uncles and aunts, and they all help out. They’ll be fine, but I do wish I could be there more.’
Could she see herself with a life partner? ‘I don’t discount it, but I’m so busy. I was always running so fast that I never had a sense that anyone liked me anyway.’ She pauses. ‘That’s a strange, strange thing to say, but do you know what I mean? It would be interesting, but I’m a handful. I can’t imagine anyone putting up with me.’ She strikes me, I say, as more insecure than people might imagine. ‘Sshhh.’ She puts her finger to her lips and laughs. ‘It’s my secret.’ Annie Leibovitz: Portraits 2005-2016 (Phaidon, £69.95) will be published on 25 October. To order your copy for £50 with free p&p, call 0844-871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk. Leibovitz will discuss the book at Royal Festival Hall on 22 October as part of Southbank Centre’s London Literature Festival
From the selfies of Kim Kardashian to the selflessness of the Queen, Annie Leibovitz is the foremost chronicler of modern celebrity. As she publishes a new book of her work, the photographer focuses on her life-changing encounters
Donald and Melania Trump, Palm Beach airport, Florida, 2006
Woody Allen’s screening room, New York, 2005
Caitlyn Jenner, Malibu, California, 2015
Rihanna, Havana, 2015
George Clooney, Universal Studios, California, 2005