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Celebrity Photographer Annie Leibovitz Gets Personal


Annie Leibovitz has taken portraits of world leaders, Hollywood stars and rock icons. VOA's Susan Logue has a portrait of the 58-year-old photographer, who has become as famous as her celebrity subjects.

Annie Leibovitz still has a passion for the career she has pursued for more than 35 years. "I'm in a kind of strange position. I'm the established portrait photographer of this generation and I want to do it all, I guess," she told a group of reporters at the opening of the exhibition Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer's Life 1990-2005 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art here in Washington.

Her portraits are best known from magazine covers, most notably Rolling Stone, where she worked from 1970 to 1983, and Vanity Fair, where she has worked for the 24 years since.

Two of her portraits ranked first and second on the American Society of Magazine Editors 2005 list of "40 greatest magazine covers of the last 40 years." Her 1981 Rolling Stone cover of John Lennon and Yoko Ono was taken on the day he was murdered.

A 1991 portrait of Demi Moore, seven months pregnant with her second child and wearing nothing but a diamond ring and earrings, sparked a controversy when it appeared on Vanity Fair. "To us it wasn't anything sensational or controversial," she says. "It was something very beautiful and we weren't prepared for all of the attention it got."

That portrait was shot in a studio, but Leibovitz says she prefers to capture her subjects in their own milieu. "I like the story of the surroundings," she explains. I've always been interested in what people do and how they do it. I'm enamored when people do things really well. I think it is so beautiful. It's probably why my portraits are pulled away. I like to use the whole body to express the portrait."

A favorite portrait of dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov was taken on the beach in Florida during rehearsals for a new dance by choreographer Mark Morris. Baryshnikov is posed as if in a leap, but is being held up by another dancer.

"What's beautiful about this photograph to me is Mark Morris was creating this dance for Baryshnikov," Leibovitz recalls. "Misha's knees were gone. His leaps were over. And it is such a beautiful thing that Mark gave Baryshnikov. He gave him Rob Besserer to pick him up and carry him across the stage."

While Annie Leibovitz says she is not a journalist, the exhibition and the book A Photographer's Life, do include examples of reportage: pictures of the 1995 trial of O.J. Simpson and of the ruins of the World Trade Center following the terrorist attacks of 9-11, and images taken in Sarajevo in 1993 during the war.

"I felt funny putting Sarajevo in the book and the show. I didn't want it to seem like 'Oh, I went to war. I did that.' But the truth is I did go to war and do that."

One of the black and white images from that trip is of a bicycle lying in the street on its side, a dark smear on the pavement forming an arc alongside it. "A mortar went off just in front of my car and killed this young boy on a bicycle right in front of me. My car took him to the hospital, but he died on the way to the hospital."

After 35 years, Leibovitz says it is impossible not to think as a photographer even in perilous situations. She says that image of the bicycle is the result of "many, many years of graphic training, working with a 35mm camera."

At the San Francisco Art Institute, Leibovitz studied photographers Robert Frank and Cartier Bresson and learned from their example "to use the camera frame as the frame for the picture." She says, "Once you have this in your head, you're framing all the time. The only difference is: are you going to pick up the camera and take the picture?"

Leibovitz says she mainly went to Sarajevo to accompany writer Susan Sontag, with whom she shared a relationship for the last 15 years of Sontag's life. Sontag's death in 2004 from cancer is what inspired Leibovitz to take on what has been the most personal project of her career: the book and exhibit, called A Photographer's Life, 1990-2005.

"Upon Susan's death, I was working on a small memorial book for her memorial service," Leibovitz recalls. "I went through all of my personal pictures that I had from 1990 to 2005. And I felt so lucky to have the pictures I had and to be able to look at everything and review a life, so to speak."

A Photographer's Life features many pictures of Sontag, as well as images of Leibovitz' parents, siblings, daughters and extended family. During the 15 years chronicled, the photographer's father died and her three daughters were born.

She says she is proud of the work, both personal and public, that is featured in A Photographer's Life, but does not anticipate putting her private life on display again. "When I'm with my kids I hardly ever take pictures any more, especially after this book and show," she says. "I want to just be with them. I don't need to do this ever again."

Now she wants to focus on her assignment work, her portraits, and make them better.

"I feel very responsible to my work. I feel like there is a sense in this work," she says. "I've been doing it for over 35 years and it would be interesting to see it all the way through."

Annie Leibovitz' latest assignment for Vanity Fair, portraits of American folksingers, appears in the November issue of the magazine.

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