Interview with Annie Leibovitz in Fashion Flash Magazine for her first exhibition at Govinda Gallery in 1984

by Chris Murray on May 14, 2012

Photographer Annie Leibovitz and Govinda Gallery Director Chris Murray, Govinda Gallery, 1984. Copyright ©The Govinda Gallery Archives. All Rights Reserved.

Annie Leibovitz: Under The Surface
An Interview by Douglas Clegg for Fashion Flash Magazine
December 1984

Annie Leibovitz glances about the Govinda Gallery in Georgetown, her framed celebrity portraits blanketing the floor. She and gallery owner Chris Murray have spent most of the afternoon conferring on the best arrangement of the pictures. “It’s amusing to me to see this stuff together,” Annie says, “it takes on a life of its own that I could not have predicted. I like looking at a group of them together, and I think that’s when they become strong and interesting… I would hope that as time passes you’d be able to look at the pictures and get a sense or feel for a time or my lifetime. Through fashion or style, even.” Beginning in 1970, Annie Leibovitz went to work for Rolling Stone magazine, and by 1973 was their chief photographer. More recently, she has become the photographer for the revived Vanity Fair magazine. She is the photo-iconographer of rock and roll, of sports, politics and pop. Annie’s show at the Govinda Gallery is drawn from work over the past five years. It includes her Olympic athlete studies of Carl Lewis and Mary Decker, her recent portrait of artist David Hockney, Better Midler on an endless bed of roses, Meryle Streep tugging at a latex facial mask, James Taylor and Carly Simon horsing around on Martha’s Vineyard, and a very muddy Lauren Hutton. Our interview took place in the gallery’s office, with Rodney Dangerfield and the Who looking on from their frames. Annie talked about cores and surfaces in relation to her work, and injected a good deal of humor and self depreciation when she felt that she was getting too serious.

Douglas Clegg: I’ll begin with the obvious. How did you first become involved in celebrity portraits?

Annie Leibovitz: It was all Rolling Stone magazine… I was going to school in San Francisco, the San Francisco Art Institute, as a painter. The second year in school I took night classes in photography and got involved in it. I found it much more exciting than painting, I was a rotten painter. Rolling Stone came out of San Francisco, it was like the local magazine to me and I guess it was the big dream to work for them. I had a portfolio of pictures that I worked on from a six month stay on a kibbutz in Israel during my junior year in college. It wasn’t really college in those days, I have to tell you. It was during the Vietnam War and it was pretty crazy. My humanities class was taking a bottle of wine to the park and drinking… Anyway, it seemed like quite the natural thing to do to show Rolling Stone my work. I didn’t realize they were hard up for photographers, and they used me right away. And the rest is history. I was so scared I just never stopped. When I left Rolling Stone I had sort of a light year working for Vanity Fair, but now I feel like I’m doing more work than I’ve ever done before and I’m at my peak performance powers now.

D.C.: Just looking around at these photographs in the gallery, has anyone ever been really angry with the way you’ve portrayed them?

A.L.: I think there have been times when, not that it’s been a battle, but it’s really been like I always knew what was better for somebody… it works like therapy in a certain way. Not that I was trying to play God, but I think there were times that I could come up with something that they didn’t want to look at often but when they saw it, it was a relief. Now, since the book has come out and this show, I really feel much more comfortable with my work. I really am quite happy at this point to do pretty straightforward portrait work. I don’t know what that is, because even when I try a straightforward approach it looks a bit strange. It’s harder to do something that doesn’t pop out at you. You have to really remember that all this stuff is magazine work. I’m glad to have a set of prints made out of it, because from an archival point of view, it’s an interesting collection. But because it was originally done for magazines it had to be exaggerated. Working for Rolling Stone for years, I really got to know what looked good in a magazine.

D.C.: Being a magazine child, do you ever feel artistic impulses pulling you in an opposite direction from editorial limitations?

A.L.: No, I’ve always been spoiled rotten that way. I pretty much do what I want. I’ve had the best schooling you could possibly have. I was working when there were no Life or Look, in the early seventies; most photographers had to appear in Time or Newsweek and there was no room there for big photographs.

D.C.: The writer Isak Dinesen said something to the effect that we are known by the masks we wear. In your work, the most obvious example is the very famous Meryl Streep picture, in which she pinches and tugs at an actual mask. Do you feel that you’re portraying something about a celebrity that the public already knows?

A.L.: I feel comfortable doing the most obvious thing. I mean, who else is doing them? I’d like to think of myself as doing portrait work for the rest of my life. Maybe 20 years from now you’ll look at it and it will have its point. I think it’s fine enough to take the image that’s at hand and photograph that. To a certain extent, I don’t think you can get much deeper than that.

Meryl Streep, 1981. Copyright ©Annie Leibovitz. All Rights Reserved.

D.C.: Do you ever feel you are creating an image for a subject?

A.L.: With some of them, I have tampered with their image but I think with age and experience you learn there is enough already there. Again, it may be exaggerated for the picture. I think what I’m best at is surmising something that I see right away and doing that. The Blues Brothers are blue, so I painted them blue. It’s the stupidest thing you could possibly do. But to say it is one thing. To actually look at it is different. It was successful at its time. Whether this stuff is going to last is something else.

D.C.: When you have a photographic subject, and these are all very famous people, what kind of give and take goes on? Do you say, “I have this idea, let’s sit down and discuss it?

A.L.: They pretty much know what is expected. I just worked with Diane Keaton and we had a great time because she really waned to almost not be in the picture… This was for a Vanity Fair cover. The cover is not a ‘photograph’, but a completely different problem. The cover was problem-solving. Somehow or another, we did a really nice piece of work together. I had a list of ideas. She’s always evading the press or hiding, and I always saw her in the corner of this picture. She did a book called Reservations, about hotel rooms. So I saw one of those rooms with her practically not I the picture. You have to look in the room and say, “Where is Diane Keaton?’ It seemed like the natural thing to do and she really liked the idea. That’s one kind of photograph. I don’t know if it’s necessary to work that closely with people. When they want to work like that, it’s a lot of fun. With the Hall of Fame in Vanity Fair, I had fifteen minutes with Mario Cuomo. Of course, it looks like it!

D.C.: Do you show favoritism, or the reverse? Are there certain celebrities that you’ve had to work with with whom you felt uncomfortable?

A.L.: Yes, but being in business long enough, you realize that just because you dislike someone, it’s no reason to take a bad picture. You can show dislike. Actually, I didn’t really like Rodney Dangerfield’s personality, but that picture was a turning point for me because I was able to express my dislike with a crying baby. I learned something from Richard Avedon. He did a shooting with Fleetwood Mac for the cover of Rolling Stone and he had said it was the worst session he had ever had in his life, they were the rudest people, they wouldn’t sit long enough. Then I saw the picture, and it was a great picture. I learned there was no reason not to get a great picture, you’re a professional. I find that professionalism leaves more room for creativity. The more disciplined I am with my working relationships, the more productive I can become.

D.C.: Do you ever stand back and think, “This is fun, what a great way to make a living?”

A.L.: More so than ever. This week I happen to be really happy in my work. I want to be grateful for everything that’s going on… But it’s a tremendous amount of work. It looks glamorous and it’s not. You succeed if it looks easy. My organization is better now, I have a good assistant, and the people at Vanity Fair have been great… I don’t think there’s any magic to my work, though. It really has been that I work hard. (She adds facetiously) And I have no personal life and go home and make myself lean cuisine dinners.

D.C.: Do you ever find that that is the case?

A.L.: That was true when I was working at Rolling Stone. I had no time to catch up with myself and find out what I wanted to do. I do have more of a personal life now. But it’s so easy to just want to work all the time because I feel much more comfortable working.

D.C.: What direction would you like your work to take in the future?

A.L.: I’d like to do something more project oriented. Take three, four months. The last time I did that was the Rolling Stone tour in ’75. I think then I took some of the most interesting pictures, journalistically, of my career. But I like to stay on the outside and look at the image. The core is not always as interesting as the image. It gets scary a little bit under the surface.

D.C.: What would be the nature of your project?

A.L.: My father was in the Air Force (her parents now live in Silver Spring, MD) and in my youth we did a great deal of traveling around the country. I still do. If you look at my pictures I think it’s a study of American pop culture. I would love to do some updated Farm Security Commission, drive across country and spend time really looking at it. I’ve had false starts on this project. Everytime I think I’m going to go off for a month I realize just how big this country is… Avedon had a criticism of me that he thought I was going to burn myself out doing this stuff, and that’s it’s important to have projects. But I haven’t really stopped (with the portraiture). I think that this is enough to do in one lifetime. I really feel that I’m doing a service with this. I’d be quite happy to continue doing this for the rest of my life.

D.C.: Are there any dream subjects that you’d love to photograph?

A.L.: The Pope. Really. I’ve been trying to get the Pope for some time… (she looks around the room at the pictures) I can’t compete with these pictures anymore. It’s like I go out now and I don’t want to put people in mud baths (referring to the Lauren Hutton portrait in which a semi-nude Hutton wallows up to the neck in mud).

D.C.: I had been wondering how that one came about…

A.L.: She was going down to visit her family’s land in Oxford, Mississippi. She was finishing up her career as a fashion model and going into acting at the time, and anyone who knows that she’s a real down-to-earth girl. So I always planned to do something very natural with her, no makeup, no fancy clothes. She’s famous for just wearing jeans and men’s shirts. Originally, I had planned on shooting her in water. Just a natural study. There was a little lake on the edge of her family’s property. We were about ready to shoot in the water and there was this mud over to the side. We decided to have her lie in the mud. It’s such a great metaphor for her because she’s wearing the earth instead of Oscar de la Renta. (Annie Leibovitz, celebrity portrait artist, pauses and sighs) I feel that people have the right to look as good as they can.

Lauren Hutton, Nude, Oxford, Mississippi, 1981. Copyright ©Annie Leibovitz. All Rights Reserved.

Washington Post Art Critic Paul Richard with Annie Leibovitz at her first Govinda Gallery exhibition in 1984. Copyright ©The Govinda Gallery Archives. All Rights Reserved.

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