Through Her Lens

In her new book, Annie Leibovitz, our most famous photographer, places celebs side by side with surprisingly personal images of love and loss. An exclusive.
 
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Annie Leibovitz is tired and nursing a cold, and she' s just flown back to New York on the red-eye from Los Angeles, where she spent two days shooting Angelina Jolie for Vogue. Like so many of her photo sessions, there was nothing simple about it. "I talked with Angelina before the shoot," says Leibovitz, who's famous for her preparation. "She felt like she was coming back from having the baby and she felt very sexy and ready to go." Jolie, a pilot, suggested shooting on an old airfield near the desert, with motorcycles and small planes among the props. (She flew herself to the location and the next day, Brad Pitt buzzed up in his plane.) They also spent a day shooting in the dunes near Death Valley, where the mercury hit 104, and the wind whipped so hard that everyone was peppered with sand. There were 50 people on the set, and racks of clothes from the New York spring collections to be tried and styled. It was as if Leibovitz were directing a small movie.

Even for America's foremost celebrity photographer, it's been a busy couple of months--starting with the interruption of her August vacation to shoot that elusive Hollywood infant, Suri Cruise, for the cover of Vanity Fair. You might think, after a career spent photographing divas and presidents, that taking pictures of a cute little baby would be a ... snap. But no. "It's very hard when the baby is that small," says Leibovitz. "It's being held by the parents all the time. It's not really connecting to anything else." She spent the better part of two weeks capturing 3-month-old Suri's waking moments with Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, at Cruise's homes in L.A. and Telluride, Colo. Though Leibovitz had less control over her tiny subject than she's used to, she did manage to direct the now ubiquitous cover shot of Suri, inspired by Linda McCartney's famous picture of Paul with their firstborn wrapped in his jacket--which she calls "one of my favorite pictures of a father holding a baby."

A nice homage--but it's usually Leibovitz who's inventing the iconic shot. What other contemporary photographer has produced as many indelible images of American pop culture? You know these pictures, from Whoopi Goldberg in the milk bath, to a nude and very pregnant Demi Moore, to the most famous picture of all: John Lennon, bare as a baby, curled around Yoko Ono, taken hours before he was killed. (The American Society of Magazine Editors recently voted the Lennon and Moore covers, which graced Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair respectively, the No. 1 and 2 magazine images of the past 40 years.) Leibovitz has become the master of the highly theatrical portrait, carefully staged in elaborate settings with witty props--pictures that have often come to define the image of her sitters.

While manipulating this world of polished glamour, Leibovitz has mostly remained hidden; the camera, she has said, is a protection. Now, in a surprising new collection of her work, "A Photographer's Life: 1990-2005," Leibovitz, 56, is getting personal. Interspersed among the famous subjects are pictures of her extended family (she is one of six siblings), her own three young children and the person she was closest to for that decade and a half--the late writer and critic Susan Sontag. Here's a photographer with an uncanny knack for getting people to take off their clothes, finally going naked herself--not just literally, but in throwing open a window on her private life. Her fans may be astonished both by the range of the work and the unstudied, everyday quality of some of the images--a family day at the beach, a newborn in the delivery room. She occasionally presents a grid of four pictures from the same sequence--some shots even out of focus--to show us a sliver of life on the move, rather than a moment of frozen perfection. "It's so much more than what a single picture can say," she maintains--a notion that's the antithesis of what the great French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson famously called "the decisive moment."

What may be the most controversial aspect of Leibovitz's book is the intimate pictures from her relationship with Sontag, and particularly the painful images of the writer when she was seriously ill with cancer. The two first met in the late '80s, when Leibovitz photographed her for a book jacket. They never lived together, though they each had an apartment within view of the other's. But their many trips--to Paris, Venice, Capri, the Nile, the ruins of Petra in Jordan--are recorded here. Sontag, the author of the award-winning book of criticism "On Photography," wasn't easy on Leibovitz: "She thought I was good--and that I could be better. And I wanted to be a better photographer. She sort of raised the bar and made me feel I needed to take control." Because of Sontag, Leibowitz went to Sarajevo during the Bosnian war, where she shot such powerful pictures as that of a child's bike lying in a road smeared with blood. But Sontag also loved pop culture. When Tina Brown, then editor of Vanity Fair, seemed to hesitate over printing the pregnant Demi Moore pictures, Sontag called her to say how great they were. "Susan was so entrenched in life, I couldn't keep up with her," says Leibovitz. "She was just bigger than everything."

Sitting in her Greenwich Village office, wearing jeans and sneakers, Leibovitz explains how Sontag's death in December 2004--followed only weeks later by the death of Leibovitz's father--propelled her to make this book. "It totally came out of a moment," she says. "I had already done some looking at photographs of Susan--that was very hard--for a little memorial book. I had never taken the time to see what I had, really." She would weep and pin the pictures up on the long walls of an old barn at her country place in upstate New York. "And then, I got very excited, trying to look from 1990 to 2005, as if Susan was standing behind me." Leibovitz tears up and reaches for a box of tissues.

 
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