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A new book celebrates Annie Leibovitz’s fashion photography

HE FIRST lens that Annie Leibovitz, an American photographer, looked through was the rear-seat window of her parents’ station wagon. Her father was a lieutenant colonel in the US Air Force, and in the late 1960s their family moved from suburban Connecticut to the Philippines. Her first camera came later, she says over Zoom from her home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. It was a cheap Minolta SR-T 101, bought while travelling in Japan with her mother as an 18-year-old on a break from her painting studies at the San Francisco Art Institute. She had no plans to be a photographer, so “why spend too much on a camera?”

And yet Ms Leibovitz is now celebrated for her images of world leaders, actors, musicians, and activists, which disarm and glorify her subjects in equal measure. “Annie Leibovitz: Wonderland”, a new photobook of her work, is the first to focus on her decades-long career in fashion photography and the pictures she took for Vogue.

Much of the 72-year-old artist’s output blurs the line between photojournalism, which strives to document a fleeting moment to preserve reality, and editorial photography, which depicts its subjects in a stylised way to promote products, tell a story or attract attention. As a student, Ms Leibovitz found the friction between documentary photography and fashion shoots compelling. “The former was kept higher up while the other was considered commercial.”

Glamour is worth documenting, she believes. Her subjects—whether they be politicians (such as Hillary Clinton), pop-stars (like Lady Gaga), or activists (including Malala Yousafzai)—are captured in an unnervingly realistic way. At the same time, they radiate under the dramatic light she casts over them, enhanced by a glow reminiscent of the chiaroscuro technique used by Renaissance painters.

Ms Leibovitz once hoped to become a painter, but soon ditched that ambition and attended night-school classes in photography. “Abstract painting of the time was too angry and I didn’t have the patience,” she says. In 1970 she got her start working for Rolling Stone; by 1973 she was the magazine’s chief photographer. “No one told me how to take a picture”, she recalls. She snapped John Lennon and Yoko Ono hours before Lennon’s murder, and with Hunter S. Thompson covered Richard Nixon’s last days at the White House.

For all the excitement of her day job, she would often find herself visiting the Las Palmas newsstand in Los Angeles to pour over glossy magazines full of decadent images by photographers such as Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton. She saw parallels between the types of images they produced and the work she was doing with rock singers on tour. That gave her new ideas about the ways she could take pictures, too.

Both she (behind the camera) and the subjects in front of it are, she thinks, engaged in an act of performance. Her work is imbued with theatrics. She snapped Angelina Jolie on the front of a hang glider, and Keira Knightley as Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz”. Ms Leibovitz’s mother was a dance teacher, and always signed her up for classes. “It changed how I look at things around the camera,” she says. There is a rhythm to her process, a one-two of intrusion and retreat.

Her work is often funny, too. “My approach to fashion has always been lighthearted,” she says. She revels in its inherent whimsy. Take for example, her shoot featuring Sarah Jessica Parker, the star of “Sex and the City”, in front a mountainous pile of pillows. Or her series depicting Natalia Vodianova, a Russian model, crammed into a tiny house as Lewis Carroll’s Alice in her wonderland.

In 2007 Ms Leibovitz became the first American to officially photograph Queen Elizabeth II and her family. Research is integral to this kind of assignment, she says. “I cannot afford to go into the shoot without a plan.” She views her subjects as creative partners and the final images as a reflection of that relationship. But they will always be a kind of fiction, she admits, despite the immediacy and realism of photography. It will never be possible to capture “the full complexity of a subject” in a single shot. “You can only get ten percent of a person in an image.”

“Annie Leibovitz: Wonderland” is published by Phaidon. Photographic prints from the book will be on display at Hauser & Wirth in Southampton, New York, until December 23rd, 2021.

Top image
Annie Leibovitz
Sarah Jessica Parker, The Plaza Hotel, New York City, 2005
Archival pigment print
110.5 x 160 cm / 43 1/2 x 63 in; 113 x 166.4 x 3.8 cm / 44 1/2 x 65 1/2 x 1 1/2 in (framed)
© Annie Leibovitz
Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Second image
Annie Leibovitz
Natalia Vodianova and Christian Lacroix, Paris, 2003
Archival pigment print, Edition of 8
33 x 45.7 cm / 13 x 18 in; 35.4 x 48.1 x 3.8 cm / 13 7/8 x 18 7/8 x 1 1/2 in (framed)
© Annie Leibovitz
Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth


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