Annie Leibovitz has had a career spanning five decades, creating some of the most iconic photographs of all time. Many of those works have appeared in Vogue; with subjects such as Kate Moss, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, Michelle Obama, and Stormy Daniels, Leibovitz has chronicled many eras in fashion, pop culture, and politics in the pages of the magazine.
At Vogue’s Forces of Fashion conference today, Leibovitz sat down with contributor Jonathan Van Meter to discuss some of her most memorable shoots, moving from reportage to fashion and celebrity photography and—in line with this year’s theme, Forces of Change—how she works in our current social media moment, in which everyone is their own photographer. Read the highlights below.
On working with a writer on set: Van Meter (who has written many of the cover stories that Leibovitz has photographed) asked about having a writer on set versus keeping the photography and interview portions of a story separate. “You really don’t like to be watched while you’re working,” Leibovitz replied. “You’re trying to work and you don’t want someone looking at you.” But a Vogue shoot has its perks: “What’s great about working for Vogue is that Vogue takes care of all the people it photographs and writes about.”
Her early work as a reporter at Rolling Stone also led to her first fashion shoot: “It’s funny looking at your work, because I think it looks dated . . . fashion is of a time and it can be dated, but I always want the work to be timeless, that is what I strive for,” Leibovitz said of a spread for Rolling Stone in 1977, in which she shot Margaux Hemingway for her first fashion assignment. She had covered Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign in Plains, Georgia, and she photographed model Hemingway there in the back room of Billy Carter’s (Jimmy’s brother) gas station. Looking back on her transition from reportage and political photographer to fashion, she said, “I’m the first one to say that I don’t think I’m a fashion photographer . . . I sort of backed into portraiture.”
On photographing political figures then versus contemporary campaigns and figures now: Van Meter said, “Covering Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign then must be so different than covering it would be now.” Leibovitz replied, “Every so often I go in and talk to Anna [Wintour, Vogue Editor in Chief] and we say, should we be photographing Trump? I was also there photographing Nixon when he resigned . . . .” But she said that her work now blends journalism and fashion and portraiture together: “Now I almost feel like I’m more of a conceptual artist than a photographer in my work. It’s so amazing to have different kinds of photography; there’s no reason why you have to work one way . . . . That’s what was so amazing about the fashion work, it was using journalism and storytelling.”
Leibovitz would rather work on location than in a studio: Looking at a 1997 photograph of Nicole Kidman in Vanessa Bell’s bedroom in Charleston, South Carolina, a house that she then photographed for a series called “Pilgrimage,” in which no photos had people in them, Van Meter asked whether place is “something that creates a narrative” for her. Leibovitz said that in fact she would “never work in a studio if I could.”
Her first couture fashion shoot for Vogue was in 1993, and it was unconventional: After leaving Rolling Stone in 1983, Leibovitz was asked to shoot couture shows in Paris with Kate Moss in 1993 by Anna Wintour—and Sean Combs, then known as Puff Daddy, would be there. Leibovitz described it as “the meeting of two worlds: rap culture and high fashion.” The shoot “really is me trying to be a fashion photographer,” she said, and it was inspired by Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon, and Irving Penn. “I learned so much about photography from fashion photography.”
On her iconic Alice in Wonderland–themed fashion shoot from 2003, starring Natalia Vodianova and various designers: Supermodels like Vodianova and Moss are “wonderful muses,” she said. “I think Anna was very smart with making sure I had [people] who could handle their end of the photograph. Doing Alice in Wonderland was very simple; I knew the book very well.”
On making her subjects comfortable on set: “I don’t really believe it’s my job. By the time we’re working with the people we’re working with, they know why they’re there . . . and we work together. I try to do the shoots faster now. I think it’s comforting to just get right to work.”
When Van Meter asked if narrative photography is dying out, Leibovitz replied not for her: “I love a series,” she said. “I’m not even sure I take a good single picture.” She also likes a simple setup for her portraiture: “Sometimes I turn around and go: Who are these people and what are they doing here?”
Go Behind the Scenes at the 2018 Forces of Fashion Conference
Photographed by Corey Tenold