1995. Chateau Marmont, West Hollywood. A motel room with a pair of pale green upholstered chairs. A shirtless, shaved-headed Dennis Hopper in the left chair, hands crossed over his belly, a suspicious look on his face.
In the other chair, Christopher Walken sits dressed completely in black, shoes shined to a high polish, dyed black hair to his shoulders, hands gripping the arms of the chair, left eye squinting into the camera.
Between them stands an old-fashioned wooden end table in front of open curtains leading to darkness. A lamp’s bright white light shines on only half of each man.
Somehow, each actor’s face reflects all the characters he’s ever played on screen. There is no other way to describe it.
Only Annie Leibovitz could have taken this photograph. Her particular way of seeing the world is like no other photographer working today.
Lebovitz started out at the San Francisco Art Institute as a painter but discovered photography on a trip to Japan with her mother during the summer after her sophomore year.
Two of her main photographic influences were Robert Frank and Cartier-Bresson. She and her fellow students were taught to imitate the men’s graphic, composed style of personal reportage. But Leibovitz made the style her own.
“What became important was to have a point of view,” she said.
When she started out at Rolling Stone magazine in 1970 when RS was in its beginnings, Leibovitz thought she was doing journalism but soon found out that wasn’t true. She was a portrait photographer.
Leibovitz’s first assignment for RS was to photograph John Lennon. She learned from him “something that did stay with me my whole career, which is to be very straightforward.” She doesn’t try to chat with her subjects about other topics or pretend they’re doing something else besides creating the photograph.
“What he taught me seems completely obvious,” Leibovitz said. “He expected people to treat each other well.” Her black and white photo of Lennon appeared on the cover of the January 21, 1971 issue of RS.
Leibovitz was the official photographer for the Rolling Stones’ 1975 tour. In 1980, she photographed John Lennon and Yoko Ono for RS just hours before Lennon was murdered.
The classic RS cover shows Lennon naked and Yoko Ono totally clothed, and in 2005, was named best magazine cover from the past 40 years by the American Society of Magazine Editors.
For almost four decades, Leibovitz has photographed rock stars, politicians, athletes and movie stars for Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, among other magazines. She has published at least nine books of photography.
Though she photographs many famous people, Leibovitz hates 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,” she said.
Leibovitz believes the great thing about photography is that one photo can have all kinds of meanings. She compares it to a Dylan song. “Everyone brings their own meaning to it.”
She loved photography from the start. “I felt filled up right away,” she said. “I was seeing the world. I was a middle child among six kids. My parents were exhausted. Now I had a friend. I was less lonely.”
Now that she has children, she doesn’t always pick up her camera as she used to before. She has to “negotiate if I want to trade off being there for taking pictures.” She feels she’s more “in life.”
But when she does photograph her family and friends, she considers it her 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.”
Transitioning to digital photography scared Leibovitz. When digital first started, “you had all these rooms filled with machines,” she said. “It was like going into surgery or something.” As she learned more, it got easier. She realized “you learn what you don’t need until you’re almost back where you started, which is really exciting.”
Now Leibovitz finds a freedom in shooting digital photography. “I like the way it looks, even the flatness. It’s contemporary.”
Leibovitz’s finest book is Women, published in 1999, including an essay by her partner, Susan Sontag, who died several years ago. Women contains photos of over 170 women from all walks of life.
Images of well-known women such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Madeleine Albright, and poet Jorie Graham, are juxtaposed with photos of Las Vegas showgirls, farmers, miners, domestic violence victims, and gussied-up members of a Mississippi debutante club.
In her essay, Susan Sontag calls Women “a book that invites the sympathetic responses we bring to the depiction of a minority (for that it what women are, by every criterion except the numerical).”
“Ambition is what women have been schooled to stifle in themselves,” Sontag says.
The photos in Women do anything but stifle women’s images. We see them in as they are, doing what they do in their daily lives, whether mining, running Olympic races, or judging Supreme Court cases.
While working on Women, Leibovitz was afraid of letting women down.
“The whole thing was very daunting,” she said. “But it became more about women's self-esteem. It really wasn't trying to be any kind of women's statement, but it became one on its own. Susan said this in her essay: some stereotypes are kept in place and some are broken.”
David Weich of Powells Books said Women will be “remembered as the definitive photographic record of women at the turn of the century.”
Another of Leibovitz’s books, At Work, is full of many of her famous photographs, but in this book she tells the stories behind them. The photos are deeper because she explains what exactly went into the making of them.
At Work is a book by an artist looking back over a long career. She wants young photographers to see that it’s not “smoke and mirrors.” She wants to show the mistakes and failures that make up a career.
She wants them to know: “It’s about learning to see.”
Rolling Stone cover images:
“Annie Leibovitz: Life and Work,” ALAFoto: Photography Resources, http://www.alafoto.com. Undated. Retrieved 10-30-10.
Leibovitz, Annie. American Music. New York: Random House. 2003.
Leibovitz, Annie. Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life 1990-2005. New York: Random House. 2006.
Leibovitz, Annie, and Susan Sontag. Women: Photographs by Annie Leibovitz, Essay by Susan Sontag. New York: Random House. 1999.
Pinczuk, Michele. “Annie Leibovitz: Always in Style,” David’s Voice: Your Community,
http://www.davidsvoice.org/page.aspx?id=156951. Undated. Retrieved 10-30-10.
Weich, Dave, “Annie Leibovitz Puts Down Camera, Talks,” www.powells.com.
http://www.powells.com/authors/leibovitz.html, 1999. Retrieved 10-30-10.
Weich, Dave, “Annie Leibovitz at Work,” www.powells.com.
http://www.powells.com/authors/leibovitz.html, 2008. Retrieved 10-30-10.