Annie Leibovitz may be known best to some for her fashion, music, and art photography, especially her imaginative, staged shoots for Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Rolling Stone. Remember the John and Yoko cover? Leibovitz’s rightfully storied photography career spans almost fifty years. Though her images of famous people are incredible, at times arresting, and often beautiful, her photojournalism and portraits of family and non-famous people command the same modifiers—incredible, arresting, and often beautiful. My recommendation tonight is Annie Leibovitz at Work, published by Random House in 2008. The book’s publication date marks the approximate forty-year anniversary of Leibovitz’s professional photography career.
My favorite thing about this work besides the career and subject-spanning photographs throughout, of course, has to be the way in which Leibovitz narrates her own life and career in parallel with larger domestic and international events. An artist’s detailing of her own career and life could be masturbatory, self-congratulating, or saccharine; however, Leibovitz’s work tends to read like a series of recollections that parallel an artist’s journey through post-1968 America. We feel the grim reality set in after the “Summer of Love,” we see the rise of New Journalism, the terror of Kent State, and the Nixon-monster all within the prologue and the first chapter. The remaining 208 pages take the reader through some of Leibovitz’s favorite subjects, topics, and themes. The book effortlessly moves through discussions of craft, techniques, and her experiences on shoots.
In “War,” Leibovitz explains her early initiation into photographing people in the armed services. Her family lived at Clark Air Base in the Philippines, and despite her conflicted feelings about the Vietnam War, the young Annie “felt at ease taking their [the soldiers’] pictures.” The chapter also discusses her experiences in 1982 during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and her shock at the way photographic setting were altered to make a better image. So much for objectivity, eh? Most of the chapter details her experiences photographing people during the Bosnian War. Leibovitz writes quite candidly about her own inexperience as a photojournalist before arriving in Sarajevo in 1993. Her account manages to live up to her desire to bear witness as the narrating “I” turns into a report about the lives and deaths of others. The chapter ends, after a brief discussion of her 1994 return to Sarajevo and journey to Rwanda to report on the genocide, “The violence had finally ended a month before I had arrived. There was nothing left to do but record the evidence.”
For those readers who are interested in Leibovitz’s Hollywood, fashion, and staged photography, the book showcases and spins yarns about plenty of that, too. There are also wonderful pieces of writing about Susan Sontag, Patti Smith, and the process of photographing dancers and athletes. Her photographs of Evander Holyfield and Baryshnikov, for example, are rich examples of portraiture. The book has much to offer in its visuals and narration, and the artist makes an excellent guide through her craft and career in her own words.
Annie D’Orazio is so sorry that her CBC post is late today! She hopes that you have enjoyed it and that you will read this book. There are pictures of Burroughs and the Queen of England in it. In one book. For real. You can follow her on twitter. She usually contributes about comic books, but she was compelled to talk about another Annie this week.