WET WHOOPI: Leibovitz develops her portrait concepts by doing her homework.
Could there be anyone cooler to have for a photography teacher than Annie Leibovitz? The 59-year-old lens master, known best for her intimate, idiosyncratic portraiture work for Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, is not drawing up lesson plans quite yet. But her latest book, Annie Leibovitz at Work (Random House), details her career, some of her most famous photo shoots, and includes a section on equipment and questions that budding photographers frequently ask her. If her previous work, A Photographer's Life: 1990–2005, was a penetrating look into Leibovitz's personal and work lives, At Work narrows the focus to meaningful moments of her 30-year career.
"I thought of it as a primer or text for a young photographer," says Leibovitz, over the phone from Manhattan. The book is not a rigid must-have and must-do set of rules for would-be shooters, but rather a loose collection of thoughts and lessons Leibovitz has learned over the years.
In At Work, she recounts her experience as a tour photographer for the Rolling Stones in 1975, and how that taught her "to become so much a part of what was going on that no one would notice that you were there." (Of course, she notes, that particular situation was an "extreme" one in which to become immersed. "I did everything you're supposed to do when you go on tour with the Rolling Stones." Hmmm.)
She also writes about her favorite portraits — Whoopi Goldberg emerging from a bathtub full of milk, Keith Haring naked and covered in painted patterns reminiscent of his artwork, Bette Midler laying on a bed of roses. Such photo concepts, she says, resulted from spending time with her subjects — "doing my homework." She criticizes photographers who ask people to smile for photos. "I've never asked anyone to smile," writes Leibovitz, because doing so is "asking them to do something false."
But, she says during our interview, there's a broader lesson for any aspiring photographer to learn. "Really, the thing you need to do is learn how to see."
At Work is heavier on the writing than any of Leibovitz's previous books. Her tone is conversational, unpretentious, and refreshingly straightforward, if somewhat minimal. She seems to possess natural ease as a writer, which, she says, is not the truth: "I was miserable, and it was horrible! I have a new, profound respect for the printed word."
Annie Leibovitz will read from Annie Leibovitz at Work at the First Parish Church Meetinghouse, Mass Ave and Church Streets, Cambridge, on November 24 at 7 pm. Admission is $5. Call 617.661.1515.