The photographer may be best known for getting stars to do whatever she asks, but a new exhibition reminds us where she learned how to use her lens
Although Annie Leibovitz’s work practically screams “New York,” with its polished, intimate, insider-y feel, the photographer’s roots run deep in California. She has two sisters in the Bay Area, takes her kids surfing in Bolinas over spring break, honed her craft attending the San Francisco Art Institute and worked at Rolling Stone in San Francisco before Jann Wenner moved the publication to Manhattan in 1977.
“I get emotional talking about that,” says Leibovitz of her formative California stint. In preparation for “Annie Leibovitz. The Early Years, 1970-1983: Archive Project No. 1,” she pored over every single contact sheet, looked through everything she’d done as a student and a rookie. What emerged “was a river of film,” she says, with a trace of reminiscence in her voice, “that flows through places and grids on the walls of the gallery. It goes on and on and on.” The exhibition at Hauser & Wirth in Los Angeles even includes photographs from a 2017 LUMA Foundation show and covers more than 5,000 works in chronological and thematic order. “It’s the voyage of a young girl photographer going out and loving taking photographs,” she says.
It’s also a record of one of American history’s pivotal eras, both culturally and politically. While Leibovitz passed through her 20s and into her 30s, photographing 142 covers for Rolling Stone, she was having “extraordinary adventures”: capturing Allen Ginsberg accepting a joint, road tripping with gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, and shadowing Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane while she held court from her bed (shots of the latter two are in the exhibit). Meanwhile, the country was roiling. Vietnam, Nixon, The Rolling Stones’ American Tour 1969, Apollo 17. Leibovitz found herself at the epicenter of much of it. “This work is about being there, the moment and stuff is happening in front of you, and you are not making it up,” she says.
In 1983 Leibovitz moved to Vanity Fair, where she developed a different reputation, that of a portraitist, working closely with legendary editor Tina Brown. “I would have been the last person I thought would have become a portrait photographer,” Leibovitz says. “But suddenly you had an appointment with them [the subjects] and they were like, ‘What do you want to do?’ There was definitely more theater.”
Her celebrity portraits often exhibit a duality of thought and a talent for inciting conversation: A 15-year-old Miley Cyrus wrapped in a bed sheet; Demi Moore seven months pregnant, naked, cradling her bump; Whoopi Goldberg submerged in a bath of milk.
And she continues to iterate. Her book A Photographer’s Life: 1990-2005 featured celebrities and personal photos intermixed, including images of herself and her late companion, writer Susan Sontag. The tome Pilgrimage zeros in on historic places and objects left behind, such as Emily Dickinson’s white dress or Virginia Woolf’s writing desk.
Today, far better known for her polished portraits than those early years of raw photojournalism, Leibovitz still enjoys the exercise of looking back at how she honed her skills, taught to her by designer Bea Feitler. “That’s how you learn,” Leibovitz says. “I revisited what it was like to be obsessed and be insane and go out there and work really, really hard.” She adds: “It’s not so different from when I take a picture now.” “Annie Leibovitz. The Early Years 1970-1983: Archive Project No. 1,” through April 14, Hauser & Wirth, 901 E. Third St., L.A., 213-943-1620; hauserwirth.com.
Words by ELIZABETH KHURI CHANDLER.
Photography by ANNIE LEIBOVITZ.