December 13, 2008--In one of her many meditations on the taking of pictures, Susan Sontag wrote that "all photographs aspire to the condition of being memorable -- that is, unforgettable."
Annie Leibovitz, Sontag's lover before her death in 2004, says she doesn't really "have a single favorite photograph" among those she's taken; it's her body of work, its "accumulation," that gives her the most satisfaction. And yet "Annie Leibovitz at Work," the latest of her books, makes a viewer realize how many of Leibovitz's pictures have managed, individually, to fulfill the egoistic aspiration Sontag ascribed to all photographs.
Modestly proportioned, this new book is trim-sized more for the nightstand than the coffee table. Its photos are generally reproduced on a smaller scale than they were during their first appearances in splashy venues like Vanity Fair. The text, part memoir, part casual manifesto, is conveyed in an unpretentious, sometimes even choppy, style -- "Athletes are proud of their bodies. They've worked very hard on them" - that derives from its being "based on conversations" between Leibovitz and her editor, Sharon DeLano.
If the more general observations about photography in "At Work" don't surprise, they do convince. They're delivered by induction, set against the particular photos that taught Leibovitz her lessons. Among them: the camera really does love some people more than others; not just leggy Nicole Kidman but "gaunt, sinister" William Burroughs. When doing sports photography, "if you see the picture through the viewfinder, you're too late." (She got the hurdle, but not Edwin Moses.)
Leibovitz is "not nostalgic about cameras" or even film, but "At Work" does display a kind of wistfulness for much of what she got to see over the last 40 years, and even for some of what she just missed, like the Paris fashion shows of the 1960s, where "photographers and editors stayed up working around the clock and everyone got drunk and crazy and wild." (Leibovitz did, it should be noted, get to go on tour with the Rolling Stones.)
The author clings to a belief, reinforced by shooting the O. J. Simpson trial and its raucous surroundings, that still photographs, which invite contemplation, can even now compete with "the barrage of images on television." (Being nearly as famous as some of her subjects hasn't hurt Leibovitz: Judge Lance Ito, a fan, gave her special access to his courtroom.)
What Leibovitz learned from her early magazine work, much of it for Rolling Stone, derived from on-the-job experience, not editorial direction. Shooting concerts was difficult because "you were at the mercy of the lighting people, who were usually on drugs." The subjects could be too. After she told a writer she'd seen "vats of white powder" around Ike Turner when photographing him - and the information found its way into print - Turner called her: "Annie, this is Ike. How could you have done that? We have ways to take care of people like you." Lesson learned?
"I decided that from then on the writer's story was his story and my story was my story." Often her story needed no text at all: a 1975 photo of Arnold Schwarzenegger, naked in a hotel room after winning a body-building competition, makes him look as if he's been turned to stone, a sort of muscle-bound Midas tricked by fate.
Leibovitz avoids inflated claims for what she does and deflects compliments that her pictures have "captured someone" with a confirmed belief that a photograph can never get more than "a tiny slice of a subject." Her famous shot of an extremely pregnant Demi Moore may have been a great magazine cover, but Leibovitz says it's too awkward and constrained (the subject had to cover her breasts) to be "a good photograph per se." Her self-criticisms are neither left-handed nor tormenting; she sees what's wrong and, freshly instructed, moves on. Criticism of subjects is nowhere to be found: "There certainly are people who are a pain to work with. I'd be crazy to name them. You can't be indiscreet in this business."
George Lois, the art director whose high-concept 1960s Esquire covers put Sonny Liston in a Santa hat and Andy Warhol in a can of soup, has had a longer influence on Leibovitz than he did on magazines in general. (Leibovitz deplores current cover designs for being safe and formulaic.)
The conceptual covers she did for Rolling Stone -- the Blues Brothers painted blue; Meryl Streep pulling at her own whitefaced visage -- prefigured a technique ("placing my subject in the middle of an idea") that carried over into the pictures she made for a long-running advertising campaign by American Express. Some of her best work illustrated the corporate claim that "Membership has its privileges": Willie Shoemaker standing next to Wilt Chamberlain; John Cleese hanging from a tree; Ella Fitzgerald in a pose and outfit that for once allowed her to convey sexiness instead of perfect pitch. For these shoots, as always, Leibovitz did her "homework," boning up on her subjects but then, in their presence, not making any special effort to put them at their ease. She has even resorted to a variant of Lieutenant Columbo's just-one-more-thing approach to get what she wants: "As soon as you say it's over, the subject will feel relieved and suddenly look great. And then you keep shooting."
Contrary to some press accounts, Queen Elizabeth did not storm out of her session with Leibovitz; she more or less stormed in, brisk and impatient. One of the resulting photographs, with Her Majesty in a huge cape against a wintry landscape, looks rather like the ultimate American Express ad. As it happens, the trees in the picture were shot on a Tuesday. The Queen, disinclined to go outdoors, was shot the next day, and the royal marriage of digital images was effected after that.
Leibovitz made the transition to computerized imagery with some reluctance: digital photography seemed at first to require too many people and too much equipment on the set. But she has "learned to love" the new medium, which allows her to take fewer pictures and see what she's getting as she gets it. With digital, photographers "can keep the image that used to exist only on the Polaroid" taken during the setup.
Digital can also cater to celebrities' schedules, allowing them to be shot separately for the same group pictures. As Leibovitz explains: "The picture of Helen Mirren and Judi Dench in the car" - part of a fictional, film-noir photo essay for Vanity Fair - "was made in two different places." But to the viewer, the possibilities seem not so much endless as entropic; these complicated photo fantasies crammed with stars and costumes and layouts move beyond concept toward a kind of visual cacophony. The contrivance begins to control Leibovitz instead of the other way around, as is the case in her brilliant business as usual.