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Celebrity Photographer, Photographer Celebrity

Talking with Annie Leibovitz about the manufacture of cultural identity and the American dream

Susie Kalil: A number of interviews and articles about your work seem based on the celebrity factor -- how you get these people to do what you want, how you work the magic, so to speak. I'd like to talk about the meaning of your work in culture. By that I'm referring to the American dream, the construction of identity, the notion of power and control.

Annie Leibovitz: I do think that one of the things that has happened with the show is that the attention has been drawn to the photography for the first time, and people are asking about how the photographs are done versus what was Whoopi Goldberg really like. I'm not saying you can't underestimate the power of the person in the photograph. But now the emphasis is on the photograph, which has been a big success for me, and also less tiresome than talking about the people in the pictures.

What does this exhibition say about your job as a hard witness of the American dream? What is the dream about? And is somebody still dreaming it? Or is it just movies, ads, photographs, that keep it going?

I think you're really talking about Hollywood entertainment, which you're trying to tie into the American dream. In my own life, there's a respect for things that matter and more interior kinds of thoughts now. The work has always been a combination of a reflection of what's going on and myself.

It's funny that the '70s were a style that feels very '70s. It wasn't intentional. That's what I was doing then. In the '80s I was working for Rolling Stone and having to shoot color. I mean, it's easy now to sit here and look back and say, "Oh, this is why all those things were done." But it's interesting how they still reflect the style of the '80s and end up reflecting what the time was like.

If you look at the photographs of George Platt Lynes from the '30s and '40s, and then if you look at other photographers from that time, all of the work looks like George Platt Lynes. They're all coming out of that school of that time. For whatever reason, all the work is very similar. It's just that George Platt Lynes' work survived. So it's interesting for me to see how influenced I am by what is going on. The general public, from teen\hagers to people who know little about art, are all fascinated by the photographs. During the early '70s, Midwest kids looked at those photos of the Rolling Stones tour and dreamed of being there, behind stage. It's about the freedom and adventure to be whoever you wanted or pretended to become. But the images also join in the construction of identity -- the means by which people understand themselves, whether they're men or women, manic depressives or addicts. It seems to me that identity is constructed very badly today, in fragments, cross-references and contradictions. Your photographs, however, present themselves as a cohesive whole.

The work was done primarily for Rolling Stone for 13 years, and then for Vanity Fair for the last ten years. So I've been working for the two luxury liners of their time, and I've photographed cover assignments for them. I've sort of put an umbilical cord into popular culture that way.

Although I don't know how much longer I'll be with the magazine, I can sort of feel myself separating a little bit. I'm more my own person now, although Vanity Fair still has an idea of what they need and what they want just by subject matter. Sometimes a cover for IVanity Fair can seem more like advertising than advertising. But the tradeoff is pretty good at the moment. I do the performance artists, I worked in Sarajevo. It's really up to me. I can do as much as I can imagine myself doing, and they still want me to do these other things. They didn't feel so separate before. Now they do.

Do your elaborate setups give you the chance to play characters? Like Cindy Sherman or even Madonna, your photos seem to offer a kaleidoscope of images, feeding the short attention span of a channel-surfing, celebrity-hungry audience.

Cindy Sherman is a good story. I mean, imagine doing Cindy Sherman, being a photographer trying to photograph someone who does a pretty good job of photographing herself anyway, and realizing that you can't go into her playpen. You're not allowed to touch her toys. She's the master of disguise. You're already limited, so you're going to have to do something that uses her as herself. And what is herself? When she came to the door of her loft, she was wearing a white shirt and black pants -- exactly what she's wearing in the photograph -- like she just came out of the shower. She looked androgynous, and I thought, "This is so interesting. She just looks like nothing, an interesting sort of nothing.: Then we sat down and I asked her how she imagined we were going to do this. She said she wished she could be hidden. I immediately thought, let's do ten Cindy Shermans.

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