Annie Leibovitz – the photographer who has captured and cataloged the essence of a generation – spoke at Austin’s Long Center as one of five international stops on her book tour. The audience embraced both her presence and her choice of their city’s chance to be a part of this living legend’s unveiling of Portraits 2005-2016.
Illuminated in a single spotlight behind a lectern, Liebovitz presented a slideshow of her images, accompanying each with the background of their creation. While simply looking through any of her books is a deeply satisfying trip into the subjects captured through her lens, hearing her account of the ‘behind the scenes’ experience really opens up the viewer to her process of creating these timeless images. She spoke that the root of this process was activated with revered Art Director Bea Feitler’s advice that “you will learn the most from your own work, and by looking back you will find out how you need to go forward.” Thus began the significance of Annie Liebovitz’s published photographic compendiums.
She touched on her previous book, A Photographer’s Life: 1990-2005, presenting the candid imagery of her life and loved ones, attaching a personal connection of herself with the audience. When speaking of her art and talent she is void of any vanity and pretension – a respectable trait for someone who as accomplished the level of notoriety she has – and defines her own celebrity in the same genuine spirit as she does in her images of notable mainstream figures. Her commentary on the photographs was a mixture of humor, fact, and silence – silence in reverence of love, loss, and pause to absorb what the images tell in their own light. Her art speaks for itself and does so as she later explains because she strives to capture as much as the location and setting to describe the subject as she does the subject itself. Having been driven by the narrative element of this book, she admittedly lost sight of the awareness of the intimacy into the lives of her family through these photos that had, too, been exposed, and began her concentration on portraiture.
Her third book in her series, Portraits: 2005-2016, is a retrospective work – something she stated was not a book of heroes but a book of our time. Throughout the lecture she referred to the photoshoots as “sittings” which proved a rather interesting and apt term as she spoke about it being a collaborative process between the subject and herself, gaining insight into their lives as she goes. She is able to capture that true essence of a person by letting the “portrait be dependent on the moment,” melding the defining features of the subject with their personal landscape in her own mise en scène. This, in turn, has become her defining feature as an artist and has set her work apart as a symbol of our time.
Portraits embraces the cultural shift of those years depicted and Leibovitz visited a handful of them in her presentation from political heads to her artist series, among various other celebrities, touching on points of interest about them as she went. She touched on how Michelle Obama was shy and self-conscious at first but she witnessed the strength and beauty that grew as she and Barak went through office; how Donald Trump was an entertaining personality to photograph; the Queen’s personal request to capture her life; how the overhead shot of Virginia Woolfe’s writing table symbolized a flag for artists and how, witnessed in her pilgrimage, Georgia O’Keefe’s painted subjects were often painted right on the beaten path of her surroundings. Leibovitz also went in depth about her time capturing David Hockney and how his personal artistry –especially that of his study of photography and its visual reality – was of great importance to her, naming him a great artist of our time. There was no hesitation at the opportunity to jab at the current allegations facing Harvey Weinstein as his slide came up, dubbing it the first in her unexpected “creep series” and later revisiting the term with Kevin Spacey’s photo exclaiming the irony of how a photograph can take on a new meaning over time.
Another aspect of the book that took an unexpected turn was the choice of the final photo. Leibovitz recounted her experience of wrapping up the book in the final days of the presidential election, assuming the likelihood of Hilary Clinton’s portrait in the White House being the final piece, however as that took a turn she opted for the documentation of the re-emergence of Robert Smithson’s earthwork in the Great Salt Lake – perhaps a deeper, fitting metaphor for this era of art and society. While some are posed, some more happenstance, all the portraits in the book come together in a collection with very classical art overtones – Leibovitz painting the light of the subject with light gathered through her lens.
ANNIE LEIBOVITZ PHOTO GALLERY
Click to View Full Images
Following her speech, the floor was opened to a brief question and answer session from the audience. The photog discussed in her responses how photojournalism right now is becoming increasingly powerful – how it is the time in history right now to be proactive & relentless and is “a great time to not look away.” When asked about the most surprising subject of her career, she – as a working photographer still – was unable to fully disclose a response, however, stated that reality was surprisingly stranger than fiction and sometimes the shots create themselves in the light of the subject at hand. She is propelled to tell a story in each of these shots, as it is the essence of her work as a content photographer, and has successfully built a career full of accolades as proof of her ability to portray a candid account of life on the other side of the glass.
An excerpt in this book – not discussed in the lecture but pertinent to the essence that is Annie – says that she is like a fox as “foxes are the unseen seers” and Alexandra Fuller captures that observation well. Her entire essay is deeply beautiful. Though Annie Liebovitz seems to make it a point both in her book and her lecture to draw more attention to the product of her work than herself as a creator, that element of humbled self-reverence should be addressed and celebrated by her admirers as the character that lends itself to such moving art. For an artist to shape a culture with her eye says a lot to her innate talents and the level of introspection refracted out into her world and Austin was honored to have the opportunity to get to know that artist personally.