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Celebrity Photographer, Photographer Celebrity

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

Frenzy surrounds the touring exhibition of photographs by Annie Leibovitz. When the retrospective opened two years ago at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., between 250,000 and 300,000 people saw the show during its five-week run -- as many visitors as the Portrait Gallery normally attracts in a year. In New York, hundreds reportedly mobbed the entrance to the International Center of Photography on the night of the show's opening, unable to get in. The overall attendance of more than 70,000 surpassed the ICP's previous record, set by an Henri Cartier-Bresson retrospective. At the Phoenix Art Museum, a last-minute extension of two weeks accommodated the desires of an unfulfilled throng.

The tumult is understandable. Leibovitz is routinely credited with seeing into the heart of American pop culture with her hipster lens. And although Leibovitz is a photographer of celebrities, she's also a photographer who is a celebrity in her own right. Iconographic and arresting, her images have been deemed signposts of postmodern life. There's the enduring image of a naked John Lennon curled up in a fetal position on the fully clothed body of his wife, Yoko Ono, taken just two hours before he was murdered by Mark David Chapman. Her 1979 photograph of Bette Midler is an aerial view showing the recumbent singer-actress with arms and legs akimbo, her torso covered by a blanket of scarlet roses. Actor/director/playwright Sam Shepard is decked out in chaps with horse and bridle. Actress Whoopi Goldberg is immersed in a bath of milk.

These images are among the 120 photographs currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts through January 30, the twelfth venue (with three more to go) to host Leibovitz's national tour. Sponsored by American Express, the exhibition is the first retrospective of Leibovitz's 20-year career and runs the gamut from her earliest assignments for Rolling Stone magazine through her current portraiture for Vanity Fair, as well as images created for The Gap and American Express advertising campaigns.

An Air Force brat who was born in Connecticut in 1949 and grew up in different parts of the country, Leibovitz intended to study painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. During a visit to her parents' home at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, she bought a camera in Japan. With it she shot and printed many photos, including one of her earliest published photographs, The Queen of the Negritos, in which a tiny woman holds hands with an American soldier. After several months on an Israeli kibbutz, Leibovitz returned to San Francisco in 1970 and took her prints to Rolling Stone, at the time a fledgling magazine devoted to chronicling the rock counterculture.

At Rolling Stone, Leibovitz became known for her black-and-white reportage -- rock stars backstage and in their private lives (she was commissioned to document the Rolling Stones on tour), a Christmas party at Soledad prison, Richard Nixon's last days at the White House. Whereas many of these images evoke the uncompromising street style of Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, Leibovitz began to produce elaborately staged and lighted scenes when the magazine shifted to color in 1974.

After 13 years as Rolling Stone's superstar shooter, Leibovitz became principal portraitist for Vanity Fair, a move which expanded her retinue to include writers, actors, politicians, movie stars and people who fed off the excesses of the 1980s. Along the way she garnered lucrative ad campaigns, a 1983 book (in addition to the more recent catalog accompanying the current exhibition) and a number of private gallery shows. Both magazines accurately diagnosed celebrity fever and understood its almost insatiable hunger for more stars. Indeed, Vanity FairI has aggressively promoted Leibovitz as a star photographer of stars. Her name is often highlighted on the magazine's cover -- a logical outgrowth of its distinctive brand of journalism, in which writers and photographers not only cover celebrities but become them.

Leibovitz's success as a portraitist, not to mention her ability to come up with a seemingly endless stream of bold and witty ideas for poses and settings, has met with resistance from some critics who feel that the work has shown only limited aesthetic development.

ut others are quick to point out that the more studied, formal shots which became her trademarks in the '80s also stand as a powerful document of the time: Donald and Ivana Trump poised on gilded chairs against a rococo mantel; Arnold Schwarzenegger in tight white breeches astride a magnificent white horse; Keith Haring's nude body painted to match the furniture he'd just decorated with his signature pictograms. All of these are composed neatly; figure and ground merge for flattened pictures with a graphic punch. As magazine formats have grown tighter, Leibovitz has continued to recast the single, storytelling portrait, using humor and surprise to make a photograph grab your attention instantly.

In a recent interview at the MFA, Leibovitz talked about the retrospective, which marks her bid for artistic respectability as well as show-biz renown. The tall and lanky Leibovitz was dressed in a black suit and white shirt. Although she was gracious, even businesslike, in discussing her work and career, I got the feeling that perhaps she has answered too many questions on celebrities and photo sessions. (Leibovitz's sponsor, American Express, schedules a round of 30-minute interviews, in addition to press briefings, at each tour stop.) What I sensed may have been a yearning to take her work in other directions, as well as a curious reluctance to talk about the culture she has helped shape and define.

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.

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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