Annie Leibovitz: ‘I’m frustrated about the word ‘celebrity’ ’

Annie Leibovitz is a little breathless, she tells me — although she looks calm enough sitting in the cool white surroundings of her house in Rhinebeck, upstate New York. She has just arrived back home, she explains, after a long drive to take her daughter to a friend’s house.

“Thank you for being patient. I’m in this other role, right now, with my children, and my older daughter just virtually graduated high school and she’s very sad that it couldn’t be for real. Thursday was the graduation — it was very weird — we all had to sit six feet apart . . .”

“And here’s my lunch.” Laughing, she holds up the large brown bag containing her sushi order so that I can see it over our Zoom call. On the other side of the world, my own sushi counts as supper. “This is thrilling for me,” she says. “I get to eat tuna — my children are all more interested in being vegetarian.” 

We start talking, as everyone does these days, about lockdown. Leibovitz has been in upstate New York since mid-March — “sharing one bathroom with three teenage girls!”.

Leibovitz herself, now 70, is probably the world’s best-known photographer of the famous, with a portfolio that stretches from presidents to pop stars, from a Vanity Fair cover of a naked, pregnant Demi Moore to an anniversary portrait of the Queen. So the enforced calm away from her New York base and her usual relentless travelling routine has meant not only an unusual amount of time with her daughters — 18-year-old Sarah and twin sisters Susan and Samuelle, born three and a half years later by surrogate — but also, she says, “a sense of renewal”.

She is, surprisingly, a little nervous. “I feel inadequate, a little bit. You’d have done better to talk to someone like Susan Sontag, she was a wonderful talker — but we’ll do our best here.”

So almost straight away she mentions Sontag, the great American writer who was her partner for some 15 years, although they were often unspecific about the nature of their relationship. Sontag died in 2004 but her name weaves quite naturally in and out of Leibovitz’s conversation, almost as if she were still present.

And has she herself, I ask, found this lockdown a creative time — or, like many artists, felt paralysed by changing circumstances and anxieties?

“The last sitting I did was with Simone Biles, the gymnast, for the cover of Vogue. We flew into Houston in March — it might not have been the smartest thing to do — everything was going into lockdown just as we were flying. But then when we first got up here . . . well, I’ve built a good system for my children to be taken care of very well without me, and I found myself in this position of being back in their lives in a full-on way — and it took over. I sort of wasn’t interested in taking any photographs — I didn’t feel moved to take any.”

“Then Hauser & Wirth [her gallery] started to do these online shows and they were very good, I really liked them, and I said I’d like to do one. The first thing I thought about were these older photographs I did: they inhabit me, they are kind of the mortar between my other photographs. I mean the portraits.”

She’s referring to some of the evoc­ative work she created for a 2011 book entitled Pilgrimage, a series of journeys to sites that spoke to her: Emily Dickinson’s house, Henry David Thoreau’s cabin, Virginia Woolf’s home and more.

“I did them when I was having a difficult time,” she says. The previous few years had brought severe financial problems for Leibovitz, involving loans, debts and property, even though she is one of the most highly paid photo­graphers in the world. “But I guess they are my favourite photographs.”

The title of her new online show, Still Life, and its quiet, intense, sometimes almost abstract subject matter, could come as a surprise to people who know Leibovitz as the ultimate chronicler of the rock ’n’ roll years. At Rolling Stone magazine, from 1970 onwards, she captured memorable images of the most famous faces of the time — including the unforgettable picture of John Lennon, naked and curled around the clothed body of Yoko Ono, taken just a few hours before he was murdered in 1980. Rolling Stone was followed by Vanity Fair, where the counterculture gave way to more mainstream celebrity portraits, and then Vogue.

But still life, rather than the dazzle of celebrity, is what’s preoccupying her right now. “I read The New York Times every single day, and mostly I’m just enamoured of the photojournalism that’s going on right now — the work being done on the streets is so strong, incredible, I’ve never seen it so powerful.”

“Where was I going with that? Oh yes — I read a piece on photography in The New York Times, saying that maybe the photography for right now is still lifes. So I felt vindicated about this work . . . I think I like it more than anyone else likes it! An art director I worked with in the 1970s and 1980s taught me that if you want to go forward, you have to look back, and I’ve done that my whole life and career — and the work I’m doing now looks back.”

On both sides of the Atlantic, our sushi is sitting untouched. Although I urge her to eat, I’m not much feeling like it myself: is there something vaguely disgusting about eating over Zoom? “I’m glad you’re not eating,” she says, “then I don’t have to eat. I’m not a real breakfast and lunch person, I love sitting down to dinner with my family.”


We reminisce about the opening of a show of her work in Los Angeles last year — a giant display of 4,000 pieces called Archive Project No 1. When I tell her I was there for the opening, and for the surprise at the party — a gig by her friend Patti Smith — she bursts out laughing. “You were there when I got up and I was so mad — I was mad that people were talking?”

I was indeed. The deafening art-world chatter hadn’t subsided through Smith’s set — except from those, like me, who were breathless with fandom — and at one point Leibovitz jumped on to the platform and shouted at everyone to stop talking and listen. “Patti was embarrassed!”

“It was amazing, you know — that work was born in California, for Rolling Stone magazine in San Francisco, and it was great to bring it back there, the energy was amazing. It was a very special time, and the work will never be like that again — it was like sketching — I was a kid.”

Osaka

22 Garden St., Rhinebeck, NY 12572

Miso soup $2.95

Tuna sushi x6 $14.85

Yellowtail handroll x2 $9.90

Tenshi

61 Upper St., London N1 0NY

Miso soup (homemade)

Sushi/sashimi set £19.95

Total (combined) £41.90

Leibovitz started at Rolling Stone when she was still a student; at the time it was a powerhouse of music writing, along with groundbreaking political reporting from Hunter S Thompson. Her cover shots for the magazine brought her to fame and in 1977, when the magazine moved to New York, Leibovitz followed.

“The move to New York almost killed me. I was in over my head. I was a pretty naive, gawky, awkward young person. I’ve never really felt I’ve come to terms with New York. What’s great about being a photographer, though, is that you’re on the outside, observing it, and liking observing it, and I’ve lived my life very comfortably on the outside. The portrait work, as formal as it may feel, I’m very comfortable with doing it until I drop . . . I can’t wait to see who’s the next vice-president — that’s what I’d like to do next. I’d like to be photographing her, whoever she is.”

I point out that she herself is now as famous as many of her subjects (she hates the word “celebrity”). Is she really still the outside observer?

She bridles a little. “I have lived a very private life. I really love my work but I’m not friends with any of these people, I like to keep that separate . . . I’m frustrated about the word ‘celebrity’ because I’m mostly interested in what people do, more than who they are. Like anyone else, I like to admire people, and I do — you know, Baryshnikov dancing . . . President Obama . . . ”

And in another of the quick right-angle turns that characterise her stream of speech, she diffuses her embarrassment at the topic of fame. “Styles of photography change all the time. If you do this for 50 years there’s no reason to stay in one style. I think of myself as more of a conceptual artist using photography, so it’s great to explore all the different ways you can take pictures. Journalism has taken over right now — it’s so important — so the style is more relaxed, more journalistic, and that feeds over into the portraits. I have a vocabulary of different ways to work and I like to use them all.”

It’s true that her still life work is a world away from her highly staged, almost theatrical cover shoots. And in technical terms? She has seen a lot of changes over the 50 years of her career.

“Yes, so many changes. You couldn’t help but be interested in what digital had to offer — but I certainly mourn the loss of the dark room and all those sexy parts of photography that have gone by the wayside. But the pros far outweigh the cons. If something new comes out, I want to know about it and use it — or have someone beside me who can. I have a good assistant and I really don’t know how all the lights work or the cameras, they turn them on for me.”

“I’ve been using the cellphone cameras right now. How can you turn down something that’s in your pocket, you can just pull out and shoot? That’s all I’ve really wanted to do.”


By now we’ve each dutifully eaten a few bits of sushi. And I don’t quite let go of the question of her portraits, and her famous subjects. Is it hard, I want to know, to take a portrait of someone you don’t admire?

“As a photographer, you should be able to photograph anybody, but I do fare better with liking someone or admiring someone — I like to really get engaged. I always think about Arnold Newman’s pic of Krupp, the German tank builder — he photographed him with a light from underneath, to make him look evil” — she grins — “so you do have a lot of power, when you take these photographs, there’s a judgment going on.”

“When Trump was elected, well, there were plans, but in the end I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.” She laughs easily, but only once does she truly burst out laughing. “Is that a trick question, Jan?” I’ve brought up the subject of magazines. I want to know what the changing fortunes of the glossies will mean for photography, but she assumes that I’m talking about the debates about diversity and treatment of staff currently swirling around Vogue and its editor-in-chief.

“Of course it has to change. Anna Wintour has acknow­ledged that — this is a time of reckoning for all of us, a time of change. It’s a Bob Dylan song! I do want to say about Anna, though, we can’t forget how important she has been to so many people, how supportive she has been.”

Leibovitz is more interested in talking about books. Her many magnificent volumes speak to a working life carefully documented: more instances of the importance of the past to her and in her work. “The book always comes first, in my mind. I never even thought of A Photographer’s Life [2006] as an exhibition, it was always a book. That’s the idea of looking back, to go forward. I’ve done this every few years: first was the book of my first 20 years, 1970-1990; it had John Lennon on the cover. And then 1990-2005, the time when I was with Susan Sontag, then 2005-2015. I love books. They will be there for ever.”

Will there be another in her Women series? These portraits, of women from “all walks of life”, are gritty, often close-up, somehow making the monumental out of the ordinary. They’re also a far cry from Leibovitz’s recent Vogue covers of Stella McCartney, Greta Gerwig, Cardi B and Ashley Graham — each with children or resplendently pregnant, pictured in luxuriant style, highly set up and lavishly dressed.

“Oh, that [the Women portraits] never stops. It was Susan’s idea in the first place, to do a book about women. I didn’t think it was a very good idea because I thought it was like going out and photographing the ocean or the sky — it was just too big. But it actually turned out to be such a great project.”

When I tell Leibovitz that I find her a kind photographer — even if penetrating, she never seems to be cruel to her subjects — she becomes quite emotional for a minute. “I do like to like people. At this point in my life, I believe that people deserve to look good. Thank you for recognising that. I think we need to be humanised in our pictures. Oh, I don’t know what to say to that.”

She talks about how she admired Richard Avedon — not a kind photographer, we agree — but, she says, “a true intellectual, a genius. If it were not for him straddling between art and magazine assignments, I would have had no lead to follow.”

Our time is nearly up and we’ve given up even mentioning the sushi. Leibovitz suddenly swivels her screen to show me her surroundings, a leafy garden with a broad pond outside the windows. “I’m sitting in the Pond House,” she says. “I’ve made it my office, so I can escape from the kids. I’ve had this place for over 25 years. I gave it to Susan to write in. She hated the country, but she liked working in this little house.”

“I’ve become obsessed with swimming across the pond: I go in as often as three times a day. It’s revitalising.”

Does she miss the city, I ask, and the pace of life there?

“I don’t really miss it. The city is equated with work; a place to live to work. When they were starting to open things up, I even felt a little sad. But I do miss the travel. I like to go to where my subject exists and lives, I don’t really enjoy studio work that much.”

“This has been a great time for renewal, but also a time for reckoning. For all of us right now.”

Jan Dalley is the FT’s arts editor

‘Annie Leibovitz: Still Life’ is due to be launched online today at hauserwirth.com

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