Annie Leibovitz

by Tom Reaume May. 20, 2017 435 views

Last week I borrowed the book, Annie Leibovitz At Work, by the American portrait photographer published in 2008 by Random House, NY, 240 pages. It presents samples of her still photographs in 27 categories: OJ Simpson, The Queen, War, and Dance, etc. She explains her working methods including the various types of cameras she has used, such as a Mamiya RZ67, which I always find a bit strange. When someone looks at Guernica by Picasso, do they ask what brush sizes he used or brand of color? Of course not. But with some subjects of still photography, such as  wildlife / nature, the norm is to present the ISO, f, etc along with the picture. The technical aspects of photography should be retired, especially in fine art. 

Looking at 63 photos by Leibovitz over 200 pages, I was struck by 10 of them that had a distracting line or objects behind the head(s) of people. The most obvious was a group photo of President George Bush and 6 of his aids taken in the White House, Washington, DC. Bush has a picture frame behind his head like horns pointing down. An aid to the President's left has another picture frame behind his head like horns rising. A small chandelier and other frames fill the background. Although photographs are 2-dimensional, we instill them with a receding background through daily visual memory. Once you notice the picture frames behind the heads of the President and his aid, your eyes jump back and forth from the people's faces to the wall with pictures. The frames become part of their heads. Elsewhere, most of Leibovitz's portraits are what you have come to expect. Some are quite ordinary, with plain backgrounds, or athletes such as Charles Austin clearing the bar at high jump. 

Annie talks about the way to take photographs meant to be published in Rolling Stone or Vanity Fair, in fact any magazine with a deep gutter between the pages, and how she worked around that visual obstacle. Her still photograph of a nude Arnold Schwarzenegger (p 78) is perfectly staged and cropped to make him appear larger than life. In another picture of Arnold on a white horse, Annie admits "It was not a picture that I liked right away, because it is primarily about form and I'm reluctant to have form impose the meaning on a picture. But in Arnold's case form is also content."  To me form is everything in a picture, that is what a photographer captures or reproduces -- form, color, and texture. If it is a still photograph, we usually recognize the form of objects before we notice details. If it is a pure abstract photograph like mine, light alone is captured. My images have no documentary value, only form. Their only purpose is as a fine art print. They are created to express movement which fills the world, and which still photography seeks to repress. 

The clothing is poorly chosen for the still photograph of Arnold S in ski attire at Sun Valley, Idaho. In sunlight his black paints reproduce without detail or shadows, giving a solid black form, and his white t-shirt too closely matches the white clouds and snow on the slopes. The image would have shown more life as a b&w print, with Arnold in gray pants, providing less contrast. After Arnold came still photographs of Mikhail Baryshnikov, again in black pants which show no detail against a dark red curtain backdrop. The white coat on his upper body reveals subtle details which fit with the vertical folds in the wine-colored curtain. Overall, her group photos are her best work; the singular portraits are quite ordinary, straying not at all from the status quo of the 1970s onward.

Annie took a series of nude still photographs of the dancer June Omura for the Pirelli annual calendar. Here she did venture away from pictures in a typical calendar of female nudes by not including her face, revealing only dark, mostly flat close-ups of the model's body -- again pure form. At one point, on p 140 near its bottom, "But there was very little information in the negative. My assistant begged me to get a brighter exposure. He said we could darken the print down later. I hear this all the time, even in digital work. The technicians will say, 'You can't expose it like that. There's no detail. It's blown-out.' But sometimes I want it to look like that. I don't want to play it safe. And I lose control of the process if I don't get what I want when I'm shooting." 

Fortunately I don't have to worry about technicians and what other people think of my pure abstractions. Since none of my images are cropped or altered with software, they either work, or they are deleted. I please only myself. I am not connected with a commercial gallery. I hang my images in public libraries to educate people on this style of pure abstract photography and to remind them that everything is moving.  20 May 2017, London.


Rapid Stillness

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