Annie Leibovitz on Photography: "You Cannot Underestimate the Power of the Sitter"
"I didn't think any one else liked it but me," Annie Leibovitz told a group of snapping cameras and scratching pens yesterday about her photograph of artist Agnes Martin. Taken in Taos, it shows the woman simply sitting on her bed, facing forward, back straight. But as the photographer explained the context of the shoot, the room we were peeking into became filled with a different kind of life.
"'I sit here and wait to be inspired'" Martin, who she described as a "fragile child," told Leibovitz, "I guess it's a very personal picture for me, because I think we all hope for that. We're all waiting to be inspired." She was happy curator Charles Stainback chose to include the photo in the exhibition of her work being shown at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach.
Stainback explained his decision, "For me, it was important to include as many visual artists in my selection because it's an art museum." But the show also displays images from throughout Leibovitz's career, including those of LIl' Kim, Cindy Sherman, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Irving, even R2-D2.
Stainback started working on the exhibition a year and a half ago. "The sort of easy way out would be to pick all the famous pictures, and you're done," he said. "That sort of approach didn't interest me, and I really wanted to dig into her archive and sort of see other things. And she was very, very good about allowing me to do that."
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On why he chose the musicians displayed over the others in her catalogue, he admitted, "Like any person, I respond to a picture because of the person in it. I love the Rolling Stones. I love Lucinda Williams, I really love Lucinda Williams. I had to pick that picture. It was too good, too great. You have personal biases, and the great thing about my job is I get to make the decisions."
Leibovitz seemed pleased with those decisions, answering questions, and telling animated stories. "You cannot underestimate the power of the sitter." She continued on the Agnes Martin shot, "It's sort of like looking at that picture of John and Yoko after the picture of them intwined. After John Lennon was killed... The viewer can't help but project all the information in their head into that picture."
But it's not all movie stars or rock gods who model before her lens. "There's a picture of the Bush administration. When the Bush people look at it, they think it looks fantastic. When then people who don't like Bush look at it, they're like 'that's really great'," she mocked in a sarcastic voice. Later, she admitted that the Bushes, politicians that they are, worked their charm on her on the shoot.
"It's interesting to me to find that ground where it works in many ways."
And her process for making that happen interested the media who were blurting out questions. "I never make anyone do anything." Leibovitz said in regard to a photograph of Leonardo DiCaprio with a swan encircling his neck. "In the early days of Rolling Stone. Rod Stewart showing up and saying 'well, what do you want me to do?' It came from people asking for direction, and I actually prefer that. It's definitely a balance between letting things unfold and having to direct. I'm a reluctant director. I like to take from real life." She generally throws out three or four ideas and they work together to create one image that is "interesting, intriguing and tells the story."
She added, "I'd like to say I could take all the credit for this stuff, but not really."
For last night's Art After Dark event marking the opening of the exhibition, a Norton employee compiled a mix tape of the artists whose photos were on display.
As Leibovitz snapped her own shots of a group of photogs clicking away at her in the courtyard, she told us who she listens to these days. "It's really embarrassing. On Pandora, I put Peter, Paul and Mary and Linda Ronstadt on. When I'm in the car, I put on the Bruce Springsteen Sirius station. I love his concerts. I find it very uplifting as I'm driving down the road." Then justifying her original admission, "I know it's terrible. I put on Peter, Paul and Mary, I think, because I'm in the house with the kids and they have such a 'the answer my friends is blowing in the wind.'"
Finally, I got to ask about one of my favorite photos up of David Byrne. She said, "He was working on that film True Stories, and his wife made that suit for him. It was a cover try. It never was a cover but it was a wonderful portrait. It was great, very silly." A little silly, maybe, but definitely beautiful.
She's planning on expanding on the idea she had in her head when shooting Martin, and will be working on a project photographing artists in their studios.
Annie Leibovitz, the show, is up through June 9 at the Norton Museum of Art, 1451 South Olive Drive, West Palm Beach. Visit norton.org for museum hours.
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