Her Work in Her Words (and pictures)

ALeibovitzAnnie 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.


Enchanted Ink: Illustrator Johanna Basford

By now you’ve realized that I don’t always recommend conventional books, and I don’t intend to start today. No, today I want to talk about coloring books. Sit tight.

I have terrible insomnia, fueled by anxiety. I’ve struggled with my nighttime routine and spent hours awake hoping desperately for sleep for most of my life. When I was a little girl, I took a flashlight into my closet or the bathtub and read books while I should have been in bed. As a grown up person, I have an arsenal of “can’t sleep” activities, because when I can’t sleep, I really can’t sleep.

Secret GardenI’ve found that the things that help me feel calm and eventually restful are things that engage me, but not too much. If a movie is too boring, I’ll start to focus on anxiety, rather than calm. On the other hand, if I get too interested in my book, I won’t sleep. Art is always nice at night, but if I’m already anxious, it’s hard to let go of the perfectionist’s tendency to get obsessed when things don’t go just right.

My sister likes to color and one day when I was coloring with her, I realized I felt very calm. It was fun to make choices about crayon colors and to stay in the lines. I looked for coloring books in a number of places after that and found there weren’t too many I was interested in at stores like Target. Kid’s stuff is fun for a little while, but I found myself wanting something a bit more grown up. Eventually, I found that Dover makes some lovely coloring books and I have quite a few of them.

Then one day last month I discovered Johanna Basford and fell in love with coloring all over again. Basford is an illustrator and “ink evangelist.” She prefers to hand draw in black and white ink, which makes her intricate drawings uniquely predisposed to become coloring books. Basford’s work is inspired by the plants and animals she grew up around in rural Scotland. About her own work, she says,

Every piece I create starts life as a simple pencil sketch, evolving into a rambling pen and ink drawing usually spanning several sheets of paper. I love the tactile nature of the materials I use and the joy of smudgy fingerprints. My delicate hand inked designs intend to charm and delight, inviting you to peer closer and discover the hidden intricacies.

The reason I like Basford’s coloring books, Enchanted Forest and Secret Garden so much is that as objects, they’re art already. The covers are gorgeous (you can color them too!). Their dust jackets cEnchanted Forestome off to reveal even more colorable surface area. There are puzzles for those inclined to complete activities while coloring, but you could ignore them completely and have a wonderful time. They smell wonderful (book lovers all over know exactly what I mean). For someone like me, who loves to draw, Basford’s coloring books are a stress-free way to create because she’s already done the hard work for me.

I like to use colored pencils in Secret Garden. The pages are a little too thin for felt-tipped markers, and you may experience some bleeding if you use them. This issue is corrected in Enchanted Forest, which has much thicker pages. The quality of Basford’s art is consistent between both books, with lots of flowers and creatures to color. The illustrations in both books are intricate enough to provide a challenge, but not so much that it’s impossible to stay in the lines.

My guess is that Basford’s coloring books are not great gifts for younger children, but that artistic older children and adults will enjoy them as much as I do. I like using Prismacolor colored pencils and markers with mine, and I’m itching to try my Dr. Ph. Martin’s Bombay India Ink on them.

Check out Basford’s website for more information about her beautiful work and indulge yourself a little: buy a coloring book.

Allison Carr Waechter enjoys doodling with her Micron pens and daydreaming about the forest. She’s going to go color after she finishes this post. This post is dedicated to Allison’s heart-sister, Alaina, who knows the power of a coloring book.