Hot shot

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - CONTENTS - In­ter­view by Mick Brown

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.