Annie Leibovitz’s pictures are pure entertainment. “It’s as if they’re preceded by a drum-roll, and then….ta dah! The image,” says London based portrait photographer, Carolyn Djanogly. “You don’t forget an Annie Leibovitz image, whether it’s Whoopi Goldberg in a bath full of milk or Leonardo DiCaprio with a white swan entwined around his neck.”
We’re talking about Leibovitz, as she has a new coffee table book published this week, showcasing photographs from 2005 to 2016. Entitled Annie Leibovitz: Portraits, the book’s a visual who’s who and what’s what of the era. There’s Kim Kardashian and Kanye West on their phones, Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg sitting casually in the company’s headquarters with a stilettoed leg tucked underneath her tight black leather skirt. Adele by her piano. And Barak Obama in shirt sleeves holding meetings in the White House.
“Annie shoots the cultural people of the day at the right time,” says South African born, London- based photographer, Jillian Edelstein, citing Leibovitz’s portrait of Serena Williams, heavily pregnant on the front cover of Vanity Fair’s August issue.
Leibovitz has an understated authority (we met when she opened her retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery in 2008). Interestingly she was trying to blend into the background. Many sitters have said she takes pictures without them even realising.
The book’s New York publisher, Deborah Aaronson says that she is demanding and rigorous. “She is the hardest working person I’ve ever met, striving for perfection and pushing people around her to achieve total excellence.”
Aaronson points out the double portrait of artists, Bruce Nauman and his wife, Susan Rothenburg, holding hands. “The artists are very private so to see the relationship so apparent is a special moment.”
Edelstein adds that even with intricately set up cinematic tableaux Leibovitz still manages to look as if she happened to be there by accident because “she knows how to read situations.” Sharon Stone, Angelica Huston and Diane Lane could be gossiping in a swanky Oscar party bathroom, say, instead of posing as characters in a carefully choreographed film noir pastiche.
Leibovitz relies on her subjects to collaborate, as what they are thinking affects the picture. “A shoot is always a two way thing, discussing elements like what inspires them, any back story so you are creating a narrative behind the image. There is always loads of research beforehand so she encapsulates the character and the story behind them,” says Edelstein, who has a retrospective of her own portraits at Cape Town’s AVA Gallery from today, including Strictly’s Darcy Bussell, Sir Michael Caine and Primo Levi.
Leibovitz’s reputation helps as “subjects would aim to please even if it meant lying in a mud bath,” adds Edelstein, recalling how author, Hanif Kureishi, framed a Polaroid which Leibovitz gave him of their shoot. “When sitters trust you, something unexpected always happens.”
Born in Connecticut in October 1949, Leibovitz was one of six children born to third generation American Jews. Her partner, the late novelist and essayist, Susan Sontag was also Jewish. Leibovitz’s brother has said that she “is not overly religious, but she sees the importance of raising her kids Jewish. Our parents taught us that.” Her oldest daughter, Sarah was born in 2001 when Leibovitz was 52. Twins Susan and Samuelle were carried by a surrogate mother and born in 2005, the year after Sontag’s death.
The portfolio which landed her first gig at Rolling Stone magazine in 1970 included snaps taken whilst working on Kibbutz Amir in Northern Israel. Three years later she became the magazine’s chief photographer with plum assignments including touring with the Rolling Stones. In December 1980 she took the last photographs of John Lennon — curled against Yoko Ono — hours before he was shot.
In 1983 she joined Vanity Fair magazine — she is still a contributor — creating talked-about images including the cover shot of Demi Moore, seven months pregnant and wearing nothing but a 30-carat diamond ring.
Djanogly, whose self-taught stripped-back portraits of David Bowie, Amy Winehouse and others are in collections from the National Portrait Gallery to the Proud Galleries, says that Leibowitz is a key influence. “Her quieter black and white headshot of Paul Newman, fed into my approach to my David Bowie portraits which are simple, clean and quiet. There is no colour, composition or costume imposing an attitude, just the subject’s face doing the informing.”
She’s also inspired by Leibovitz’s attitude. “Annie is not intimidated by any of her subjects. If you are timid when shooting you are not going to get the best out of your subjects and the readers won’t get the best look. So I’ve learnt how to be bold.” She recalls how terrified she was when she shot Tony Benn at his Holland Park house in 1998 but caught him spontaneously as he hung his jacket on a balustrade and sat on his garden steps (the shot is now in the National Portrait Gallery). “By chatting with them you get through it and my confidence grows each time.”
Now the question is who’s next to step in front of Annie Leibovitz’s lens?
Annie Leibovitz: Portraits 2005-2016 is published by Phaidon this week, £69.95