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Annie Leibovitz at Work Hardcover – November 18, 2008
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The celebrated photographer Annie Leibovitz, author of the New York Times bestselling book A Photographer's Life, provides the stories, and technical description, of how some of her most famous images came to be. Starting in 1974, with her coverage of Nixon's resignation, and culminating with her controversial portraits of Queen Elizabeth II early in 2007, Leibovitz explains what professional photographers do and how they do it. The photographer in this instance is the most highly paid and prolific person in the business. Approximately 90 images are discussed in detail -- the circumstances under which they were taken, with specific technical information (what camera, what settings, what lighting, where the images appeared). The Rolling Stones' tour in 1975, the famous nude session with John Lennon and Yoko Ono hours before Lennon was killed, the American Express and Gap campaigns, Whoopi Goldberg in a bathtub of milk, Demi Moore pregnant and naked on the cover of Vanity Fair, and coverage of the couture collections in Paris with Puff Daddy and Kate Moss are among the subjects of this original and informative work.The photos and stories are arranged chronologically, moving from film to digital. Leibovitz's fans and lovers of great photography will find her stories of how one learns to see -- and then how to photograph -- inspiring.
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I was right, but it's not what I expected.
A better title would be "Annie Leibovitz: On Work."
This is not a coffee table book, and it's not mainly photographs. For each image there's at least a full page of editorial, maybe two or three pages, as the author describes how each shot came about and her thoughts about the experience. The book is smaller than you might think--a little shorter and narrower than a Time magazine--and the photos smaller than you'd expect. Few are larger than a postcard.
There's no dust jacket, just a paper band that wraps around the bottom.
I was expecting the book to include technical shot-by-shot details, with background images showing reflectors, stylists and such. No such luck. Leibovitz does, however, include an insightful essay about the equipment she has used over the years, as well as an FAQ list. "What advice do you have for a photographer that's just starting out?" "Stay close to home." (She goes on to elaborate.)
The stories, though, are interesting, much like those in A Camera, Two Kids, and a Camel. Because Leibovitz has such a clean writing style, and her subjects are often celebrities, the book is a pleasant read, and every bit the unique addition to my library I was hoping for. Now that I've spent some time with it, I actually prefer that the book isn't bigger; it's much easier to sit back and spend time with it this way.
Getting back to the images, some of them really stayed with me. Besides the famous shot of Demi Moore that became a cover of Vanity Fair, there's another one, straight on, with the top of the naked actress fully exposed. A shot of Arnold Schwarzenegger on a white stallion looks like something from Herbert List. A simple portrait of Patti Smith has the revealing facial details and expression like the best work of Richard Avedon. Then there's a 1980s photo of Rev. Al Sharpton getting his hair done at a beauty salon. Made me laugh out loud.
I know many of these shots have been published before, but it is interesting to be able to flip from one to the other.
Here's the chapter list:
1. Nixon's Resignation
2. The Rolling Stones
3. John and Yoko
4. Conceptual Pictures
6. Al Sharpton
7. Arnold Schwarzenegger
9. Demi Moore
11. Peak Performance
13. O.J. Simpson
15. Patti Smith
19. Presence and Charisma
20. Being There
21. My Mother
25. The Queen
26. The Process
27. The Road West
29. Ten Most-Asked Questions
30. Publishing History
It was a thoroughly entertaining quick read. I have returned to some of the photographs and her accompanying narration some of which stuck with me for a long while after the initial read.
However, if you are expecting a book that will technically explain each of her photographs or give you a better understanding of how a camera functions, this is not the book for you. If you want to hear stories from the heart of someone who has spent her life working in the field of photography, I recommend this wonderful book.
Honestly, I doubt I will read much nor will my photography colleagues. This is a visual industry and the cover suggests that there will be insight into the process, the execution, the "work".
If you want to see her work, I would not suggest this book.
The heart of the book is photographs surrounded by her prose. One illustration is when she was designated the tour photographer for the Rolling Stoners' 1975 tour (I saw the group twice in Buffalo, NY that year--once indoors and once outdoors; what a trip!), although she also shows photos from 1977 (Catch Keith Richards lying down or with his son Marlon). She shows us several photos to give a sense of the tour. One of my favorites is Mick Jagger jumping into the air (see page 32). But it is her observations that make this an especially interesting part of the book, as she provides context for the photos.
Another interesting pair of photographs look at the singer Patti Smith. One photo was taken in 1978 and took place in a very hot room, with the singer sweating profusely (page 123); the other was taken about two decades later after the death of Smith's husband. Both photos capture something telling about the singer, just as the prose adds its own part to telling the story.
There are photos of Leibovitz' family, telling us something about the photographer as well as her family. On page 171, there are just four lines of her words to go with a photo of Susan Sontag, but those few lines are, for me, powerful. Another fascinating part of the book is several views of Queen Elizabeth II. The photos seem to provider a sense of this monarch that go beyond just a representation. And the prose in which the photos are embedded also add to the story. In a sense, as with other sections of this book, the prose and photos have a kind of synergistic relationship (obviously, I like the book by saying this!). The section called "The Road West" has two evocative images from Monument Valley that are most affecting. Other segments of interest: John and Yoko, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and Hollywood.
This is a well done volume, wedding some exquisite photographs with the artist's reflections. The two go together well, making this a pretty compelling work.