A quick trip into downtown Los Angeles allowed me a closer look at one of my photographic heroes.
Annie Leibovitz is one of the main reasons I am a professional photographer today. She was the photographer that made me (and still makes me) look at her work and simply say, “Wow, how the heck did she do that?”
Her name has been synonymous with photography ever since I was a kid toting around an instant camera from the supermarket. But it was specifically her editorial for Vanity Fair’s March 2007 Hollywood issue that changed the course of my life. Mixing my two greatest passions, classic cinema and my then burgeoning love of photography, the editorial re-imagined contemporary actors into scenes from classic film noir. Lit to invoke the iconic low key style of noir, but still retaining that decidedly Leibovitz aesthetic that left no doubt as to who was behind the camera, the series opened up for me how beautiful images can really be.
We’ve all fallen in love with Leibovitz’s work at various points. For me, it was the celebrity work for Vanity Fair. For many, it was the rock and roll years at Rolling Stone where she covered every important artist from The Rolling Stones to Tina Turner. For many others, it would be the work she did for Vogue, elevating fashion through light and pure artistry. And while I haven’t been to Disneyland since I was in elementary school, the commercial work she’s done for the company, introducing celebrities into the realm of the fairy tale, even makes me wonder about the happiest place on Earth.
The current exhibit at Hauser & Wirth gallery in Los Angeles, Annie Leibovitz The Early Years, 1970-1983: Archive Project No. 1, isn’t about any of those things. Instead of rehashing Leibovitz’s greatest hits, the exhibition instead has a look at the early days of Leibovitz’s career as she is just getting her feet wet. Beginner or not, it’s pretty clear from the extensive archive that this woman was blessed with extraordinary talent. With or without her legendary lighting style, if you put a camera in her hand she can make magic happen.
The friend I went with, who is also a photographer, said that, after seeing the exhibition, she actually likes some of Leibovitz’s early work more than the more famous images. That’s not a knock on some of the most famous images in photographic history, but rather an acknowledgement of the raw talent on display at a period in the artist’s life when they are more free to explore.
There were several other lessons that stuck out to me that I felt would be instructive to anyone just starting out and yearning to one day be mentioned in the same breath as Leibovitz herself. Here are three of those things.
Talent May Be Given, But Careers Are Earned
Starting by expanding on my last point. It’s clear from the early photographs that Annie Leibovitz was never going to be a “bad” photographer. Her natural eye and sense of composition would rival pretty much any shooter, even at an early age. Much of the early work is pure reportage, long before she had the ability to bring the resources of a major production in to support her efforts. Just a woman and a camera out documenting the world around her in much the same way as you may be doing today.
What gives the exhibition it’s added power, however, is that it lays out Leibovitz’s work chronologically. Starting with that early reportage and ending as she is just slowly making her way into Hollywood portraiture. What you see is not only the development of her talent but also the progression of her career. In other words, she wasn’t born shooting the Hollywood Issue for Vanity Fair. She had to earn it through years and years of creating work. Her skill set and her career developed in parallel until she eventually grew into the master photographer she is today. Practice makes perfect.
Access Is Queen
One of the things that I am always struck by when visiting photo exhibits is how many times the most iconic images, the prints that sell for the most money, are often just routine in terms of photography. There’s nothing in the lighting or composition that one million and one photographers haven’t thought of on their own and have less famous duplicates of stashed away in a shoebox. Often what separates the lesser known images from the well known isn’t so much the technique as it is the subject.
Now, let me state clearly here for the record that there are absolutely no “routine” images in Leibovitz’s exhibition. My point is only to say that her already terrific images gain even more resonance over time due to the subject matter. Sometimes that subject matter is a celebrity. It’s far more interesting for most people to see a picture of Mick Jagger sleeping than it would be to see a snapshot of your Aunt Ruth in a state of slumber. Other times, the subject matter is interesting because of the intimacy of the story being told.
Lots of Leibovitz’s early work is documentary in nature. Much less major Hollywood editorial portrait shoot, and much more being embedded with a band on a cramped tour bus for weeks on end photographing everything from them on stage to the mundane moments of riding to the next show.
Two particular shots stand out to me. Neither appear to have been lit or staged in any way. Both just snippets of real life captured on film. One is an image of legendary singer Patti Smith, appearing to be in her early twenties, running across her lawn. That’s it. It’s as straightforward as it sounds. But when mounted on a wall next to Patti in full fashion icon mode, you get a more complete picture of both the larger-than-life artist and the very human 20-something year old girl behind the curtain.
Another image is of a young woman, topless except for what appears to be a T-shirt hastily tossed over her to cover her breasts, passed out on a hotel room floor in a pose that suggests she may have fallen asleep in the act of doing something I won’t reference on a family friendly platform. I don’t know exactly what was happening in the shot. But placed in context of other people in the hotel room passing her by without notice, it suggests a very clear view of the hedonistic 24/7 party atmosphere rock and roll is known for. That image, while relatively straightforward from a technical standpoint, tells an epic story about it's lead character and the world she exists in.
And both of those images are only possible because Leibovitz possessed the off camera skills to gain access. Being able to photograph the world’s most famous faces or most important moments begins with you being able to talk yourself into the room in the first place. People don’t just invite you into the most intimate moments of their lives without you having earned their trust. The bigger the subject, the harder it will be to get close to. One of the attributes that set Leibovitz apart was that she didn’t take no for an answer and was able to get herself into position to take the shots that would show off her talent.
Take More Photographs
Walking through the exhibition of Leibovitz’s early archives, you wouldn’t be alone to find yourself simply overwhelmed by the sheer volume of images. Sure, in the spray and pray digital age, we tend to burn through memory cards like they were going out of style, but in the film days, where every frame was worth its weight in gold, the process of deciding what to photograph was much more deliberate.
Moreover, this was not like when I finally went through some of my early film photography and found multiple pictures of the same random mailbox shot with various filters. Every one of Leibovitz’s images is unique. Every one tells it’s own story. Each can stand alone.
And while this documentary style is not what Leibovitz would eventually become famous for, this early practice and repetition no doubt fed into the powerhouse she would become. There is simply no substitute for putting in the work. No piece of gear you can buy. No tutorial you can watch. No style you can try to emulate.
If you want to be a great shooter, you have to, well, shoot. And shoot a lot. That’s what Leibovitz did. She shot often. She experimented with different subjects and styles. She put the full bounds of her creativity into her work. And, as a result, she’s built one of the most impressive creative careers of all time. I can think of a lot worse role models to have.
The exhibit at Hauser & Wirth gallery ends this week on the 14th of April. So, if you haven’t seen it yet, be sure to check it out before it disappears. You might just learn a thing or two.
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Images used with permission