In Annie Leibovitz’s new book, we get a glimpse of the woman who defined a generation and changed the way we see celebrities.
Legendary celebrity portraitist Annie Leibovitz is arguably as famous today as any of the people she shoots. At age 59, with a résumé nonpareil -- one that includes a long-standing relationship with Vanity Fair, exhibits at some of the world’s most prestigious galleries, and several stunning coffee-table books -- Leibovitz is a thoughtful, funny, and passionate artist, responsible for some of the most indelible images of our time.
Annie Leibovitz at Work, the photographer surveys her 40-year career in candid, intimate detail, pulling back the veil on celebrities, her creative process, and why still photographs still matter. Though she’s shot everyone from Demi Moore to the queen of England, a good deal of Leibovitz’s most famous work is devoted to musicians. As the chief photographer for Rolling Stone in the 1970s and ’80s, she captured on film legendary artists John Lennon, the Rolling Stones, and Marvin Gaye, to name but a few. For more than a decade, she defined the look of the magazine, of musicians, and of music itself. Here, she opens up about her relationship with music, past and present, and reveals which artists she’ll love forever.
You have photographed many of the greatest musical artists of the past 40 years, and the work is absolutely sublime. What’s your approach to shooting musicians?
I think when you’re doing portrait photography, which is what I do, you kind of need to fall in love with whomever you’re shooting, and that -- falling in love -- is sort of a euphemism for being completely, unhealthily obsessed with your subject. [Laughs] It’s a kind of love. It’s definitely an obsession. It’s kind of cuckoo, but it’s how I shoot. I followed Mick Jagger around for five years in the 1970s, and I never put my camera down, and I never got bored.
Is it true that when you were starting out in the late ’60s, you had basically no rock-and-roll vocabulary?
It’s true. [Laughs] I mean, I’ve always loved music, but the music I grew up with, really, was folk music -- Bob Dylan, Rosanne Cash, that timeless folk stuff. Working at Rolling Stone opened me up a lot. That’s when I started listening to rock.
You photographed John Lennon for Rolling Stone when you were just 21 years old. What was the experience like?
The Beatles were probably my real entry into rock and roll. It was a great job and a great education. Everyone knew who the Beatles were. It was more than just shooting another guy, shooting John Lennon.
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That’s how I learned to shoot bands, really, by working with the Stones. The stuff I shot on tour with them really encompasses what it’s like to be out with any band on any tour. It’s a carnival and a freak show and a marathon and the most beautiful thing in the world. I got jaded being on the road with the Stones for so long -- not because of the band but because of the lifestyle.
What music are you listening to these days?
I listen to so much music. I really love it. But I couldn’t really tell you the names of most of the bands I’m listening to today. There is some great, great new stuff, though. I listen to Feist. I think she’s great. I think Sheryl Crow is great. I listen to satellite radio stations because I love to hear new music. But I’m terrible about naming names.
For me -- probably for everyone -- music changes with time and age. If you love music the way I do, then there are some touchstones you always go back to.
Whom do you think you’ll be listening to down the road?
For me, Bob Dylan withstands time. His songs feel timeless. I love Bruce Springsteen too. You don’t ever go wrong there. Those are artists who are beyond past, present, and future -- they’re always great.
In your new book, you talk about using music during photo shoots. What does music add to a set?
When you listen to music, it sort of relaxes you, takes you away, moves you, comforts you. It can set a tone. It can sometimes be a message to the sitter, depending on what you put on. It can be a way to connect with someone. Music lets people be themselves.
What do you play when you’re shooting, say, Queen Elizabeth II? Or Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe?
With the queen, the shoot had to be so fast, there was no time for music. These days, a lot of people bring their iPods, and that’s what Daniel did.
How have you changed as a photographer, particularly in working with musicians?
When I went back to look at photos for [my book] Annie Leibovitz: American Music, I turned away from individuals and went more toward landscapes. Music is too hard to try to pinpoint. It’s like trying to photograph the ocean: You may be able to find a beginning, but you’ll never find the end. It’s just too big. It’s hard to photograph music. When I was younger, I was afraid to put the camera down. I was afraid I would miss a shot, and I was afraid of what I would do without the confidence the camera gave me. Eventually, I had to put the camera down so I could start developing a life. It was really an effort to put the camera down. I had to work at it. But when you do, you start to live a little bit more, and that means you can hear the music and enjoy the moment instead of always trying to grab it.