Friday, November 21, 2008

You Don't Have to Smile

An old friend generously brought me to Benaroya Hall Wednesday night to see Annie Leibovitz speak and show slides from her new book, At Work. I am a big fan of her early photography for Rolling Stone, a little less so of her later 1980s work, and not really at all of her current work for Vanity Fair, Amex, and Disney, among others – but there is no disputing it, the woman is a national treasure. There is just no one else out there these days, now that Avedon is gone, who has spanned eras and documented the collective public-life consciousness of the country the way Annie Leibovitz has.

At one point during the talk, she made an interesting comment about her classic photo of Arnold Schwarzenegger – the one where he's wearing tight white pants, sitting on a white horse (if you don't know it, go get that book). She said she didn't really like it at first, because she was concerned that form would define the meaning of the photo. For the rest of the night, I thought about that. I guessed she meant that she didn't want the shapes or composition in a photograph to overshadow the personality of the subject. She clarified during the Q&A period that she has a tendency to fall back on "designing" as she photographs, which she feels is not enough. As a graphic designer I found that really interesting, because for me it definitely is enough – but I understood what she meant, that for her it had to be about the person, which is much more difficult to capture than composition, whether found or constructed.

In trying to figure out what bothers me about her recent work, Leibovitz's statement about wanting form to not define the meaning of a photo was instructive. Approaching similar goals (simply put: portraiture) Avedon presents an interesting contrast, because where Leibovitz has continued to add and add, he chose to subtract and simplify, to remove any constructed meaning and focus on the subject alone. Avedon's design was no design, no form. In Leibovitz's recent work, I sometimes feel that the form – the props, the styling, the mega-staging – does the opposite of what she says she wants; it does dictate the meaning. The form that is "an Annie Leibovitz photo" often clouds out or seems to change the personalities.

When I worked for Martha Stewart in far west Chelsea, I used to walk by Annie Leibovitz's studio everyday – an impressively remodeled old brick garage on 26th Street – and wonder who was in there and what elaborate productions were taking place. The wildly complex styling and sets are impressive, to be sure. I just don't get into the result, really, for the same reason I love her work from the '70s and early '80s so much – I prefer more simplistic and spontaneous photography, and I feel like it's a more honest portrayal of whatever or whoever is being photographed.

But, man, what a career. It was really cool to hear her discuss that early stuff, her relationship with Susan Sontag, their daughter, and the way her life and work has developed over the years. At the end of the night, Leibovitz was asked if she would be photographing Obama's inauguration, and she said that yes, she would be, but that she thought she might like to be in the back, taking in the whole spectacle of the people and the event. I'm looking forward to seeing those pictures.

Photograph of Annie Leibovitz, 1973, by Henry Diltz

Listen to an interview with Annie Leibovitz from KUOW's Weekday with Steve Scher at

Order Annie Leibovitz's new book from

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