Annie Leibovitz, for once, was about to have her photo taken. She hurried into the room at W Hotel, where she stayed before her Seattle Arts and Lectures presentation at Benaroya Hall, and joked about the lighting setup for our shoot. “Uh-huh. Mmhmm. Uh-huh,” she said, surveying the room. “I know how the photo’s going to look.”
Well, of course. Leibovitz is the most renowned photographer of our time, her images our collected memories of the last half—century. Many of those pictures—along with the stories of how she got them—appear in her recently released book Annie Leibovitz at Work. There’s the celebrated Rolling Stone cover of naked John Lennon curled against Yoko Ono. The nude, pregnant Demi Moore for Vanity Fair. George W. Bush and members of his team, meanwhile, exposed themselves in a different way for a 2001 Vanity Fair cover that captured them looking like smug corporate bullies. (“I don’t know why they agreed to let us do this,” Leibovitz writes. “I suppose they felt more self-righteous than ever at that point.”)
With so many famous faces in front of her it’s easy to imagine she must occasionally get nervous. “Absolutely,” she admitted. “I’m always nervous about being able to take a good photograph. If I’m sitting in front of Bruce Springsteen, I’m still in awe. Just recently when we did the folk portfolio for Vanity Fair and I was photographing Peter, Paul, and Mary, I practically fell apart—I loved them so much when I grew up.” She guffawed, adding: “But the need to get a good picture sort of sobers you up.”
"It’s not like you stop taking pictures. It’s just you’re not picking up a camera to do it."
Leibovitz herself, it should be noted, possesses a face meant to be photographed, something worthy of sculpture but warmer than any stone could ever convey. It’s easy to see why Bush and company would reveal their true selves to her camera. She teased our team about the space where we were shooting (“What does this room cost? Did they give it to you?”), even talked shop with our photographer (“You having fun with that camera?”).
She confesses in her book that she has learned to resist shooting everything she sees. “[It was] having my children, I think, and really starting to have a life that I liked being in,” she explained. “Not seeing it as a photograph—because I had spent years, decades, looking at everything as if it was a photograph. I’m looking at you right now and…I can’t help myself.” She raised her hands to form a makeshift frame near my face. “There’s my rectangle, there you are, I’ve taken the picture,” she said. “It’s not like you stop taking pictures. It’s just you’re not picking up the camera to do it.”