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Annie Leibovitz is an institution in photography – an iconic one at that. As of 2019, her career spans fifty years; no mean feat for any profession, let alone a creative pursuit. In this time she has documented everything from The Rolling Stones in all their sweaty glory to bloodshed in Sarajevo.
Much to the delight of her fans and contemporaries, in 2008 she released At Work, a collection recalling the highlights of her career. In 2018 the revised edition was published, with updated material and insight into her process.
In her own words, the foundations of Leibovitz’s life form the foundation of her career; although born in Waterbury, Connecticut in 1942, she was constantly on the move owing to her father’s position in the U.S. Air Force. Much of her time was spent crammed into a car with five siblings and a life’s worth of luggage. She became “accustomed to looking at the world through a frame”, the car windows a lens to the sights around her.
Fast forward to 1967, Leibovitz finds herself in Japan with her mother and some of her siblings to visit her father at a military base. It was in Japan where she bought her first camera. A spark was ignited. Having begun the previous year at the San Francisco Art Institute as a painting major, she shifted gears and became a photography major. The rest is history.
On the face of it, At Work is a photo book. It could rest quite happily on any coffee table. To reduce it to a mere photo book, however, is borderline pejorative. It is a work of art unto itself, carefully crafted so as to guide its reader through Leibovitz’s professional journey.
It is ordered in such a way that the reader is kept on their toes; ‘Performance’ leads to ‘War’ which leads to ‘O.J. Simpson’. Whether or not this is deliberate is a question for Leibovitz herself, but it is fairly clear that there is some kind of connection at play. One feeds into the other; the physical performance of battle and its obvious ties with murder.
In keeping with the fame – or infamy – of Simpson, Leibovitz gives an insight into the working relationship between fame and photography. She herself is famous for documenting the famous. This was made clear to her when she was denied access to the courtroom in which Simpson’s trial was taking place, but later spotted by the judge and allowed in – why? Because the judge was a fan. This instance in particular is a good example of how fame has positively affected her work. Many, many well known people would jump at the chance to be photographed by her in this day and age.
That being said, it is quite clear throughout At Work that Leibovitz is comfortable as a background presence, arguably more so than as a celebrity herself. Her career grew from the inside out. One of her first big breaks was a request from Mick Jagger to be The Rolling Stones’ tour photographer in 1975. In order to get the best possible photos, she “became a chameleon” amidst the band and all its mayhem.
Although this proved effective, Leibovitz became what she documented. In hindsight she states that it was “unbelievably stupid” of her to become absorbed in a rock and roll tour, not least with The Rolling Stones. Anything they did, she did – for better or for worse. Often the latter.
Depth of experience is something that shines through in At Work. Over the course of her career, Leibovitz has encountered people from all corners of the planet – and she’s taken their portrait.
This depth of experience leads to a trust between Leibovitz and her subjects; this is arguably what separates her from other well-known photographers. One of the obvious examples of this dynamic is the renowned Demi Moore shoot which appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair in 1991; a then heavily pregnant Moore agreed to pose nude for Leibovitz. Other close encounters include pampering with The Reverend Al Sharpton and a nude Whoopi Goldberg bathing in milk.
There is a sensitivity to Leibovitz’s art, most likely developed from the trust she builds with her subjects. We see how she convinced a surprisingly apprehensive Meryl Streep to pose for a portrait by giving her a “role to play”, or so to speak.
Both sensitivity and intimacy are present not only in her professional sphere, but also her personal sphere. Entire sections of At Work are dedicated to Leibovitz’s mother, eldest daughter, and long-term partner Susan Sontag. These sections are notably short, however, in comparison to the sprawl of ‘Schwarzenegger’ and ‘Pilgrimage’. An eventual distinction between photography and her life evolves throughout the book, as opposed to a life revolving around photography in the early days.
Given the gravity of Leibovitz’s career, At Work serves as an excellent guide to the aspiring photographer. We are even given a Frequently Asked Questions chapter at the end of the book, detailing both theoretical and practical advice. That being said, the book as a whole is an in-depth guide to the world behind the photographs, but not necessarily an insight into Leibovitz’s process. An element of mystery surrounds her work; we are shown the end result, and a taster of the method.
At Work makes for essential reading if you want to explore the monumental career of Leibovitz. Many of her most significant photos are featured, with some intriguing nuggets along the way. By the end of the tome, you can’t help but feel that Leibovitz never left her family car. Different passengers have joined along the way, new scenes have graced the windows, but perhaps Leibovitz is still looking through those windows at the world around her. Only now, she takes the wheel – and she shares the frames.