Going through Annie Leibovitz’s archives is always a source of enchantment. It means revisiting the history of American photography, delving into the very notion of portrait, and probing her singular, poetic, expressive conception of portraiture. A native of Waterbury, Connecticut, the daughter of a dance teacher and a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, she takes us on a journey in time. Her meteoric career began at age 21, when she was still a student in thrall to Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, and Richard Avedon. From her Rolling Stone début (1970) to her work for Vanity Fair (1983) and Vogue (1998), Anna-Lou, aka Annie, has been able to encapsulate the unique personalities of her subjects, honing her conceptual and theatrical staging techniques using a refined, yet always authentic aesthetic. Through her work in photojournalism, intimate reports, counterculture, and feminism, with political figures, pop and film stars, fashion models… she has built a body of photographic work replete with iconic images.
The fine art of living
Annie Leibovitz, who sold her precious archives to the LUMA Foundation in Arles four years ago, won the William Klein Photography Award from the Académie des Beaux-Arts this year. The grant of €120,000 is awarded every two years to “a photographer of any nationality and any age for their entire career and commitment to photography.” Leibovitz is the second winner after the Indian photographer Raghu Rai. On this occasion, an exhibition is dedicated to her at the Pavillon Comtesse de Caen at the Palais de l’Institut de France, featuring over 200 images covering her prolific, protean career.
Keeping with the artist’s customary approach, the exhibition, spread across four rooms, is laid out in a grid pattern, more or less chronologically: “I wanted to show the infinite potential and breadth of what constitutes photography,” Leibovitz explained. We are taken back to her very first forays into photography — in Israel, on an air force base in the Philippines where her dad was stationed, and in the course of her daily life, as she drew inspiration from her “heroes” of photography with whom she had studied at the San Francisco Art Institute: “There was a healthy emulation among us. I became a photojournalist for Rolling Stone because of everything I learned from Cartier-Bresson and Frank. Photography is really part of the fine arts.”
John Lennon, nude, entwined around Yoko Ono, photographed a few hours before his assassination; the Rolling Stones on tour; a pregnant Demi Moore; Whoopi Goldberg bathing in milk; Richard Nixon leaving the White House in a helicopter after his resignation: nearly all of Leibovitz’s most iconic photos are there, displayed on the black walls of the Pavillon. Like a nostalgic memento of a bygone era, Annie Leibovitz’s work bears witness to the late twentieth century, starting with the Watergate scandal.
“At the time, the White House didn’t know how to work with Rolling Stone, but couldn’t ignore a magazine of such importance,” she recalled. “I was one of the freshly accredited reporters when Nixon resigned. I felt like I was a step behind all these veteran photographers. When he had left the building, they had all taken their pictures and gone back inside. I stayed back, because I wasn’t sure where to go, and photographed these guards rolling up the red carpet. This shot coincides with the evolution of the photojournalistic style, which is much better represented today. It wasn’t the kind of picture that most magazines would want to run or had room to run then, but a lot can be told in those moments in between the main moments.”
Death through the camera lens
In this torrent of images, celebrities follow one another, shedding their garments and revealing their emotions, as for example, featured side by side, Robert Penn Warren, whom Leibovitz photographed shirtless at his home in Fairfield, Connecticut, and Tess Gallagher, caught “in a playful mood” riding her horse in disguise.
“Life Magazine had asked me to photograph poets,” said the photographer. “In the portrait of this great man, I tried to capture his own poetry. At the time, [Robert Penn Warren] had been writing a lot about death. I had taken standard photos, but as I was leaving, I saw him looking at me from his window and it clicked. I asked if I could come back. His room, upstairs, was all gray. I set up the lights, sat down, and started photographing him.” Annie Leibovitz paused for a moment and looked at the photograph. “When you are past a certain stage in life, when you have written so much about death, like this poet, you reach a certain serenity. This man let his guard down and I was able to capture a moment of that serenity. I was in the moment, in the flow. This photo is extremely raw because I wanted to express what I felt about his inner peace. He was a man preparing to die. He died a few years later. I often work with a square format because it frames the world as I see it.”
Intimacy has always been an integral part of Leibovitz’s work. This comes clearly across in the third gallery, which is devoted in part to the writer and intellectual Susan Sontag, the love of Annie’s life, who had a considerable impact on her work. “From the moment I met her, she made me a better person,” the photographer asserted. “She was very demanding, and I had to live up to that demand. We had fifteen wonderful years. She liked to go out a lot and was very cultured. She couldn’t write when she was in New York, so having an apartment in Paris, not far from where I worked, was convenient. She died in New York but was buried in Paris.”
For the love of the artists
The last gallery of the exhibition at the Académie des Beaux-Arts contains yet another constellation of celebrities pictured in color and black-and-white. “I really like this shot and this story,” said Annie Leibovitz enthusiastically referring to Louise Bourgeois. “She lived in Chelsea, New York. When you work with an older subject, they want to be ready for their appointment. Louise was waiting for me. I was with her in front of the house while my assistants were setting up the lighting in the back. I remembered a photo of her, young, with her hair down. I wanted to reproduce that image, and the light coming through the window was beautiful. I asked her to let her hair loose, and took several pictures. When my assistant came to tell me everything was ready, we were done. I don’t remember who coined this phrase, but I often have this thought: a face becomes interesting after sixty-five.”
In September 2018, on a commission for Vogue, Annie Leibovitz photographed Karl Lagerfeld, the “Kaiser of fashion,” in his element, just a few months before his death. He was perusing some documents at his desk cluttered with fashion magazines, while his cat was eyeing the photographer. “This is probably one of the few times he didn’t wear glasses. … I had done a lot of research on how he spent his days, his morning ritual, getting up in his nightgown smudged with chalk and charcoal, walking around his apartment. I wanted him in his natural element. He agreed on one condition: that I come alone. That did not suit me. With experience, one develops habits, one likes to have a lighting assistant. When I arrived, I discovered the mess of this room, it was the shock of my life. Magazines, papers everywhere. I was overwhelmed by the environment that took over the session.”
In the wonderland
Fashion is also the theme of Wonderland, published in parallel to the exhibition. There is no dearth of books on the prolific production of this 72-year-old storyteller. But this new publication from Phaidon is her first book to celebrate her work in fashion with 350 images, including more than thirty published for the first time. Nicole Kidman, Serena Williams, Pina Bausch, Cate Blanchett, Kate Moss, Alexander McQueen, Queen Elizabeth II… the luminaries are still there, page after page. The book brims with anecdotes and backstage secrets. The title echoes Leibovitz’s Alice in Wonderland series, in which the Russian model Natalia Vodianova enacted the young blonde rebel. It also features British actress Keira Knightley as Dorothy in a story inspired by the Wizard of Oz. At the intersection of politics and celebrity news, we discover the sculptural profiles of Michelle Obama and of a pregnant Melania Trump wearing a golden bikini on the steps of a private jet. The activist Gloria Steinem appears with twelve-year-old Naomi Wadler, spokesperson for young African-American women victims of gun violence. The preface to this coffee table book, signed by the goddess of fashion, Anna Wintour, highlights a rich trajectory through which Leibovitz, inhabited by her art, has always sought to tell a story through images.
By Nathalie Dassa
Nathalia Dassia and is the editor-in-chief of CineChronicle.com and a cultural journalist.
Exhibition by Annie Leibovitz, winner of the William Klein Photography Award. October 29 to December 5, 2021, Académie des Beaux-Arts, 23, Quai de Conti, 75006 Paris.
Annie Leibovitz: Wonderland, Phaidon, November 2021, €79.95.