Celebrity Photographer, Photographer Celebrity

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

I hired a casting agent to look for women who were her height. What was interesting was that the actress on the end was more like Cindy Sherman than herself. It's a play on her. You get a chance to see her as herself, but you have to find her. Who's to say who she really is?

This brings up your session with Hillary Clinton for the December issue of Vogue. Who is Hillary Clinton? In the shoot, she's not the spiritual St. Joan or the cookie-baking mom. She's more like Isabella Rossellini and exudes a confidence competing with the models. What's the message coming out of that?

I've always admired her. This shooting for Vogue was done in a very classic sense. It was very traditional. Vogue gives me the opportunity to do shooting that I normally don't get a chance to do for Vanity FairI. Usually in the first year of office of a new president, the first lady sits for Vogue. They could have given it to any other photographer, but they gave me the shooting. It's just really a photograph of admiration. I think you can see a very human side of her. And if she looks good in the picture, so what? I'm not a glamour photographer -- I don't even know how to take a glamour picture -- but if she is relaxed enough to sit for the camera that way, then more power to her.

Your photographs are examples of how to convey an arresting image and make it stick in people's minds -- the instant recognition factor that calendars, posters, album covers or magazines command. Do you ever feel that your image holds more psychological tension than the people themselves?

There was a period in the first half of the work in which photography was the most important thing. It still is the most important thing, it's gone full circle. But I felt the subject was very lucky to be in the photograph and it was really about the making of the photograph.

As I got older, there began to be photographs that were the person, like the Jessye Norman photograph. It was one of the first times that the person is the photograph. It was a complete departure for me. I was totally surprised and shocked. It was a big learning experience about the arrogance of youth, about not trying to understand your subject and letting the subject be photographed. That's really true of the Hillary Clinton photographs. Those are allowing her to come forward, giving her a chance to relax and look different than she does when she's working. Maybe there's a different esthetic to the photographic portrait, the sitting. Someone has to bring something to the shooting. They don't always, but it's going to be mostly up to them how they decide they want to see themselves.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, why do you think a nude and pregnant Demi Moore brings more controversy to the cover of IVanity FairI than, say, an abused child, a homeless person or a junkie?

I was totally surprised myself. I was not prepared for the controversy and didn't really know what the controversy was. She looks sensational, and I knew it was going to be a good cover.

But what does that say about our culture?
We know it's actually frightening because it says if you're a woman and you're pregnant, you're supposed to hide in a corner. Of course, the truth is, a lot of women who are pregnant are quite beautiful. Every time I work with Demi Moore -- and I love her to bits -- I feel like I'm being dragged behind a car. She really takes charge. It shows you the fearlessness that Demi Moore has -- up-front and out there.

We're all used to looking at your images in magazine format. Then you ex\hamine them on the gallery walls and see that the figure and ground are united in an intimidating way. What other critics refer to as vacuous, I'm seeing as an icy but riveting surface. It's part of what the '80s were all about.

Yes, well, even I was afraid during those years. I had to step back. And it was a response from the '70s being so close, so intimate. You threw yourself into everything -- you're indestructible and nothing is going to hurt. You're a burn victim, basically. So if the '80s were a little bit more about surface, it's because I was distanced too.

ow I'm slowly crawling back into the work and wanting to have more intit-4macy. I've said recently that photography is bigger than the magazines. That's my discovery, and I should be almost embarrassed to say it. There was a period when I was thinking more like an art director. I was working conceptually. It was a lot of fun, and I think photography took a back seat.

You've been taking the pulse of culture for over 20 years. Where do you think we're going?

I'm not a soothsayer. I think I'm just literally going from day to day. I'm working to try to deal with things that matter more. I'm working on a series of young athletes for the Olympics, people who are training now who may or may not make it -- young kids, like 13 to 15 years old. I'm in a lucky position and feel extremely responsible to it. And I want to work my ass off. But I'm not giving you enough of the philosophical direction, am I? I'm a pretty simple person. I'm pretty much of a reflective surface.

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