Cyril Hellman meets Annie Leibovitz

Photo © Cyril Hellman

“I always carry a camera, in fact, in the backpack,” says Annie Leibovitz to calm the fifty or so photographers who crowd around her as she opens her touring exhibition in Vienna. Today, she has the same celebrity status as the persons in her portraits that she made iconic.

Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer's Life, 1990–2005, an exhibition of more than 200 photographs, will be on view from May 21, 2010 through September 21, 2010 at the brand new museum of photography "Fotografiska" in Stockholm, Sweden. See:

The exhibition presents work that Leibovitz made on assignment as a professional photographer as well as personal photographs of her family and close friends.

Cyril Hellman is a Swedish journalist and writer. An article based on his interview with Annie Leibovitz was exclusively published in the Swedish magazine Situation STHLM in January this year. Situation STHLM is a street magazine sold by homeless people. Cyril currently works as an editor of the magazine.

and this great commercial.

Cyril Hellman - Photo © Annika Aschberg

Cyril Hellman: If you had taken photos of the press gathered here recently – how would you have done it?

Annie Leibovitz: I stood here and felt like a spectator and when I saw the hysteria, I was thinking, "This cannot be true". The cameramen were about to crush the photographers so I said, "you stand behind me and shoot the cameramen who are filming me". There you have the picture. It was finally good.

Photo © Cyril Hellman

The composition of this exhibition came from grief when Susan Sontag and my dad died. I tried to find a picture of Susan for a book of remembrance when I discovered reportage images that I really liked as well as pictures of the family. Pictures I have not bothered with while I made my usual work.

It is powerful to work on the feeling that arises when someone close to you dies. I learned a lot because at a certain point you do not know what to do. I think this is where the genuine work emits. Yes, I get a little nervous when I see this and I really do not know if I will ever show my family like this again.

The exhibition premise is to tear down fences. Photography is a great medium with a large vocabulary. It is a major language. I like all aspects of photography.
When I put my personal work together, I started looking at pictures of my family, my parents and siblings, my children when they were born, my father who died - all this happened around the same time.

I was looking for a photo of Susan as a remembrance and I was not even sure I had a picture. There are boxes where I throw rolls of film without knowing what is on them. When I started going through them, I realized that there were good shots and saw how they began to tell a story. Much of the personal pictures were made in the style of reportage, snapshots, and I had managed to get that type of images continuously the whole way. I went to upstate New York and isolated myself in a barn. I put up the personal pictures on one wall and the images for clients on the other.

My friend, British editor Mark Holborn, came over because I wanted to hear his opinion.
"Do they fit together?" I said. Now I see it as a stupid question, they are two sides of me, but above all two sides of photographing. The older I get, the more I feel I am becoming less and less photographer and more a conceptual artist that likes to use photography.

The exhibition has been in several locations. The first show, when the book was released, was at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. It is a major museum for families, with the sound of children laughing. They wanted something more interactive than usual. I said, "If we can recreate the walls like when I put the exhibition together. Then people will see the process itself. I love the process. It is literally these pictures that hung in the barn.”

I'm a big fan of photography. I have an extensive library of photographic books. When I started working for the magazine, I became interested in Life's images – photographers such as W. Eugene Smith, Margaret Bourke-White, Gordon Parks - I started reading the essays. When I started doing magazine covers I became interested in portraits by Richard Avedon and Irving Penn. Another favourite is Nan Goldin, who could make exciting colour photos. Jacques-Henri Lartigue’s photo book, Diary of a Century, is a favourite book. He photographed his life through his family.

Then there are other people like Helmut Newton and Diane Arbus. When I was 20 years old and still like a child, I moved to New York and I thought, "On every street corner there is an Arbus." New York was full of Diane Arbus.

There is a fine tradition of the portrait and I do not mind following in the footsteps. You can also get very good pictures when you shoot snapshots. The nature of photography is to see what you can get.

- We are in front of a picture of Brad Pitt.

We were in Las Vegas and it was the beginning of his career. We were in a motel room that was really sloppy and sleazy, but it looks cool. Since then I have photographed him several times and he has really matured. He is comfortable in front of the camera. Nothing is impossible with photography; you can get right into the bedroom if you must.

Cyril Hellman: It appears that you, compared to an author, are not thinking of what to do next, but everything comes to you automatically.

Annie Leibovitz: You have to rely on your skills. Things that come to me still amaze me. It is just about doing it. Work is the secret. That is why I made the book, On Assignment, to show that there is not something supernatural involved.

Photo © Cyril Hellman

Cyril Hellman:
How can you create these kinds of images, while so many fail in photography?

Annie Leibovitz: I continued to work on. I was also lucky. To begin with, I got a job at Rolling Stone and learned a lot about how to take pictures. I became very interested in popular culture, it was not my only interest but I found myself in a world that made it interesting to be young and live in a world of pop culture.

I found myself at the right place at the right time. Rolling Stone was, at the time, a small magazine and I grew up there. I grew up with writers like Hunter Thompson, Tom Wolfe and was permitted to see them drunk, stoned and sober. For me it was all a learning experience.

Further reading: americanmasters/episodes/annie-leibovitz/life-through-a-lens

Cyril Hellman: Did you learn anything from Thompson?

Annie Leibovitz: I remember nothing from that time (hehe). Hunter was a genius and I thank him for my breakthrough. We did a story from the White House during the Nixon era. He never sent the article so Rolling Stone had to settle with a photo story. I really do not like to travel with a writer as he always has his own ideas. With Hunter, I was like a tornado in his tunnel. We were on mescaline when we did the White House-reportage. I was easily influenced at that time.

Cyril Hellman: You are still brilliant at capturing the human in particular celebrities, but it is more artificial and staged. Your early black and white images are more authentic.

Annie Leibovitz: There is still a value in portraying as I do nowadays. I have never stopped doing what you call authentic photos. But it is impossible to do that type of work every day given the kind of work I have. Sure, I can if I want to give myself up and get involved in someone else's life but I am quite happy to live my own life, documenting my life and then take pretty pictures of anything.

There is a tradition and aesthetics in the kind of portraits I'm doing nowadays. It's about development. I could not possibly live if I put everything aside and worked as when I was young. In those days I never went home. Today I go home after work. Sure, in a way, I have taken a step back. But then was then. Three to four times per year something comes up that I want to spend more time with. I'm quite happy with taking the simple portraits I do. I like it. You cannot mourn the loss of your youth. It is a part of you but you must continue to work on.

Cyril Hellman: Why do you photograph celebrities nowadays when you can shoot people in the street?

Annie Leibovitz: I am not a street photographer. I want to know whom I depict regardless of whether it is a known celebrity or not. I'm more interested in what people do. I'm not the kind that walks in the street and thinks, "ah, that man looks really cool." Sure, it happens that you see a stranger who looks interesting but I am not the one who discovers a young actor or singer in the street. I like to do my homework, find out things about the person. If the person is not famous, I know that I need to spend more time to find out who she is. But not always, everyone who has been around for a long time with this knows that it works in different ways.

Cyril Hellman: Do you like to be called a “celebrity photographer"?

Annie Leibovitz: That's so weird. I hate the word "celebrity". I've always been more interested in what people do than who they are and I hope the pictures reflect that. I am fortunate to be working with people who are the best actors, writers, athletes, and dancers - a wide spectrum. It feels like I'm photographing people who, in one way or another, make a difference. I photograph my contemporaries.

Cyril Hellman: How about celebrity magazines?

Annie Leibovitz: I do not like today's culture that people identify with celebrities. I feel old-fashioned because I do not appreciate what I see in magazines. Therefore, it is nice to travel through the United States and see things for myself.

Cyril Hellman: How do you portray someone with a strong personality or image?

Annie Leibovitz: It can create a conflict. When I show up it happens that the person looks lonely, sad or sick. As a photographer, I want to take that type of image. But that's not what the assignment requires. Then I regret that I did not get to take that other kind of picture. That's painful. But the only reason that you could see they were lonely and sad is because they knew that you would take a contrived image. A photographer who makes reportage will not enter the bedroom easily. But you can get into everyone's bedroom if you spend enough time. When I was still a kid I liked the challenge. I wanted to shoot the picture everybody said could not be taken.

Cyril Hellman: What is your most important characteristic as a photographer?

Annie Leibovitz: I like people. In journalism, you should be objective – that’s why my photos are not very good journalism.

Cyril Hellman: Do you really like all the persons you photographed?

Annie Leibovitz: I had to photograph George W. Bush for Vogue, and then I felt like a whore. I like all of the people portrayed in the latest books, that is why the books are so good.

We are in front of a portrait of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Mark Morris.

Annie Leibovitz (American, b. 1949)
Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rob Besserer, Cumberland Island, Georgia, 1990
chromogenic print
Photograph © Annie Leibovitz
From Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life 1990 – 2005

Annie Leibovitz: Baryshnikov is such a special person. He is a man who has certainly given back and on his own kept modern dance alive. It is a difficult art form to develop and bring forward. Especially today when there is not as much money in the art form as it deserves.

He has opened up an entire house in New York for dancers. He helps dancers and choreographers with studios and apartments. Interestingly, he does not help the young for they are already at the beginning of their careers. He helps people in mid-career who suddenly got into that slump when they are no longer a new sensation, when people start to turn their backs at them to look for the next shooting star. It is a well thought-out project.

He is a great support to other dancers and choreographers. When he meets an interesting choreographer, it's like he lends them his body. I have been fortunate that through my work I got to know him.

Mark Morris started a dance group in Florida, and Misha asked if I wanted to come down and take pictures. My mother was a dancer and I have always liked the pictures Barbara Morgan took of Martha Graham and their relationship. Barbara Morgan photographed her for 60 years. A fantastic photographer/dancer relationship.

I wanted to try to portray the creation of a dance and learned that it is not possible to photograph the dancing because it happens in the air. I was there for three weeks and it developed into a series of portraits of something that Mark made for Misha. You have to imagine Misha, his knee is bad and he can no longer reach the same heights in the air.

Mark created this image of how Rob Besserer lifted and carried him across the stage. We went down to the beach and I chose some of the steps from the dance and then re-created it on the beach.
There is something I have discovered by watching and studying photography - simple portraits have a tradition and a place. I may well be the one who takes that type of photographs. A person comes into the room and you take his portrait, trying to do your best during the time available. Does it not have the same intensity as my previous work? Of course not because it is not the same thing.

I think there is room for all kinds of photography.
When I did this exhibition it felt as if all the demons disappeared. It did not have to be one way or another. The best images ever taken are those that Stieglitz took of Georgia O'Keefe because he loved her. They were in love. Sorry, but no one comes close to those pictures. She was a great muse. She looked fantastic and knew exactly what she did. She was a Kate Moss of her time. I feel weak in my knees when I see the pictures because you feel that there is an ongoing circle and you see how they think and look at each other.

Suggested site:

We are in front of the famous, notorious image of a very pregnant Demi Moore.

Annie Leibovitz: This is close to what we are talking about. I was friends with Demi Moore and was asked to take her wedding photos. When she got pregnant with her first child she asked me to take a picture of how she looked. On the way from LA to New York I stayed in Kentucky, where Bruce was working on a film. We took a few simple portraits of Demi and Bruce, and their first child.

A few years later she was pregnant and I would shoot them for Vanity Fair. Everybody talked about how we could take a picture that did not show she was pregnant, what kind of clothes that could hide the pregnancy. Many pregnant women feel beautiful. I have taken pictures of myself pregnant; though now I think that I looked ugly ... You are in a bubble.

I took those pictures of her and said, "I wonder if this could be the cover picture.”She covered the breasts and sex as best she could and then it became the cover photo. I do not see it as a photograph but as a cover image. I cannot compare this picture with it, it's a photograph and the other one is a cover. It is in the show because it's an important picture from that time period. In the 1970-90 exhibition in NY, I did not have it because it is not a photograph. It is not natural to hide the body parts that way.

Suggested link: Leibovitz in Vanity Fair

In front of the portrait of her Mother.

Annie Leibovitz:
I am often asked what my favourite picture is and I cannot stand it. If there is any strength in my work, it's the big picture. You cannot select a single image; they have to hang next to each other. They need each other. They become stronger together.

This is a favourite because the bar is so high. I cannot do it again. It's a fine story. I was working on a book about women and wanted a picture of mom. She was, after all, the first woman I met. We grew up with mom always taking pictures of us and typically she wanted to have pictures of us smiling. I grew up to hate the very idea of a smile in a picture because I did not see it as genuine.

When we took this picture my mother got nervous and I asked, "What is the problem? Is everything okay?" “I'm afraid of looking old," she said. It was hard because I really wanted her to look good and I knew what I was doing. She looks at me as if the camera was not there. I made a print of the picture and of course she did not like it. I showed it to my father who disliked it too. He said, "Your mom is not smiling".

My story has a happy ending. At the exhibition in Washington, people came up to my mother and asked her to sign the book. After that she started to like the picture.

We walk through the hall

The first exhibition in Brooklyn was so compact and sad in many ways. We created a room with only landscape images - a place where you could step in and meditate. In the book this serves as transitions between the different parts.

Annie Leibovitz (American, b. 1949)
Susan Sontag at Petra, Jordan, 1994
chromogenic print
Photograph © Annie Leibovitz
From Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life 1990 – 2005

Getting to know Susan Sontag was something extraordinary. She was special. When we visited a museum I walked through the exhibition in 15-20 minutes. She could go back and forth between the pictures and stop. She used to ask me to stand in front of a picture and say, "look here". I had to stand right where she stood, nowhere else. She was something else.

The picture of her in the cliffs of Petra in Jordan was taken after we arrived there by mule. At that time, I only used Susan in the picture to better understand the proportions of the place. Seeing the picture now I can see how big the world was to her and how much she loved life. If you love life that much it is not fair that you must die.

The picture has changed just like the picture of John and Yoko. A kiss from John just a few hours before he was assassinated makes it a completely different story.
When I was looking for pictures of Susan, it was this one that told me who she was.

Cyril Hellman: How do you print the images?

Annie Leibovitz: Digital. The negative is scanned. It is the only way if you want them this big. Some images are Polaroid, but they are also scanned and printed digitally. - Today I shoot mostly digital. The new technology is so fascinating. You need less light; it feels like I can look into the dark. There is still a learning period. I'm learning, just like everyone else, how to use digital cameras. I have always been satisfied with being a photographer.

I remember when they suspended the production of Kodachrome film 2 in the 70's and many photographers ran and bought rolls of it to stock up in the fridge. I have always believed in going further. I like to feel contemporary. You can see how I have worked. The early 35mm pictures have a black frame; it is the frame of the negative. If it is digital, there is no frame.

As a student I learned to use the whole frame so I decide on the composition through the viewfinder/camera. When there is as a straight square around the frame – it is a Polaroid. The size shows what kind of camera I used.

Cyril Hellman: Your private photos are mostly in black and white. When do you shoot black and white and when do you use colour?

Annie Leibovitz: When I was at school at San Francisco Art we did just black and white. I was a big fan of the school of Robert Frank, Cartier-Bresson. You have more control when you shoot black and white. You can shoot in any light and in every way; it was hard to begin shooting in colour.

In the 70's high-speed colour film was very grainy and it was not very nice, so it always ended up having to use slow-speed colour and then I always felt that you were so dependent on the light. Colour film was limited.

But now, digital colour is so exciting. You need hardly any light. One can see in dark rooms. I'll go back to taking dance pictures because now you can photograph things that move quickly. It is an interesting time. I'm learning just like everyone else. I love it. There is a freedom in digital photography. And I like how it looks even when it is flat. It's contemporary.

© Cyril Hellman


Anonymous said…
interesting, thanks!
/simon j
Mr Urbano said…
There are many things about this interview that I like a lot...Annie Leibovitz sharing her stories and views about photography...I can only agree about Stieglitz portraits of Georgia O'Keeffe...his portraits are an obsession an act of love...incredible.

Cyril is a remarkable and brilliant person in my book...he has interviewed so many interesting persons...just to mention Gil Scott-Heron(!)
The revolution will not be televized, but the very first interview of Annie Leibovitz to be published in the Swedish language was published in a magazine sold by homeless people in the streets of Stockholm(!)

We will now get the chance to see Leibovitz touring exhibition in started in Brooklyn and will now visit the brand new museum of photography called "Fotografiska".
Thanks for sharing
cafe selavy said…
Huge article. Wonderful.
Mikael said…
Great work with this article and most interesting reading indeed, a must to see the exhibit when it comes here

Thank´s for the work with it
Anonymous said…
Inspirational Photographer !!!!
TOP Reportage !

mia said…
Tank you. interesting!
Anonymous said…
From the beginning, I wanted to live my own life, and patiently I shored up that desire against wind and tide.