How to photograph Annie Leibovitz
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An article published in the Arts section of the New York Times last week, “A ‘Conceptual Artist’ at Work”, explores the life, art and new book of photographer Annie Leibovitz. Equally illuminating are the portraits of Ms. Leibovitz accompanying the article, produced by photographer Gillian Laub: Intimate and inviting, the photos capture the vulnerable, often invisible, side of a person who is normally behind the camera. Ms Laub shared her experience photographing Ms Leibovitz – and what is so unique, difficult, slightly intimidating and deeply rewarding about working with someone renowned in her common field. His answers have been slightly edited and condensed.
How did you feel as you approached this mission?It was a real honor to receive this commission. But along with the excitement was a ton of nerves. The task of portraying a photography and portrait legend was daunting to say the least. But it was also very exciting.
Did you approach the mission differently from a normal shoot?
My approach does not change; it is not determined by who I photograph. I always approach each shoot with an open mind and an open heart. There is a little planning, of course, but I like to leave enough room for discovery and spontaneity.
What are the biggest challenges to photographing a photographer?
There is a level of self-awareness and camera awareness that is unique to photographing another photographer. It was like we were both sympathetic to each other because I think she knew how intimidating it was for someone to photograph her. And I recognize that someone who is always behind the camera, like Annie, is rarely in front of the camera.
The first portrait we did was in Annie’s kitchen. She was so sweet; she felt so bad because the light was difficult, and she said she had never been able to take a nice photo in her kitchen. So we tried to solve the problem together.
How do you help your subjects feel comfortable enough to open up?
There is no formula. I always want to know what makes each of us unique and special. When I spoke to Annie before the shoot and she asked me where I would like to do it, there was no doubt that I wanted to do it at her house in Rhinebeck. I had seen many pictures of her at work and in the studio, and it’s really the Annie we saw publicly.
Vulnerability is really a matter of trust. And we’re all vulnerable, so that’s really the one thing that connects us all. How to capture it? Well, photography is in magic. This is what is exciting for me.
When your subject is a photographer, does the relationship between you and the subject become more important?
Yes. It was everything I had hoped for and more, because it was collaborative. In fact, one of the photographs I wanted to take was of his pond. It was so clear from the way she described her pond that it was a very, very special place for her and her family. Unfortunately when we got to the pond at the end of the day the light was not that great. She was so excited to show me the photo she took of the pond that morning. It was this magical and mystical photograph. She said, âI’m not showing it to you to show off. You have to see how beautiful it is. She knew that it was killing me that it was not possible for me to take that picture. So Annie suggested that I come back in the morning to catch the light. She had a family birthday party to go to very early on, but she respected the creative process so much that she offered it. So I woke up at 3:30 am to go back to Rhinebeck to do this portrait. It wasn’t very convenient for her, so I was really grateful that she was so generous to offer this.
What’s the most important thing you learned or took away from the shoot?
I’ve always heard how meticulous and thorough Annie is in the research she does before her shoots, so having a window into that and her creative process was pretty amazing. I laughed when I saw his desk, as there was a large file on me and many printouts of my work, Google images, articles about me, and my recent book. I had each of her books – I brought very heavy bags full of her books for her to sign.