SRO: Photographer Annie Leibovitz at Hendricks

Nancy Keefe Rhodes 05/05/10More articles
Photographer Annie Leibovitz drew applause from the overflow audience last Thursday evening at Hendricks Chapel when she snapped pictures of the audience from the stage before her talk. Photo by Stephen Sartori, courtesy Syracuse University.

Used to be, if you went an hour early to Hendricks Chapel on the Syracuse University quad for one of the special lectures there – Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney was there barely three weeks ago, the next-to-last speaker in the 2009-2010 edition of the prestigious University Lecture Series – you might get a front row seat. Not so last week, when the 1,000-seat facility was almost full already by 6:30. Modern photo giant Annie Leibovitz, some of whose work really is iconic, wound up that series with a campus appearance she’d been promising her niece Samantha for the past four years. That niece is graduating next weekend from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications; another niece made the trip over from Ithaca, where she attends Cornell.

This seemed a family affair in more ways than one. Besides providing a huge and hugely enthusiastic contingent, the Newhouse School had co-sponsored Leibovitz’s visit. Their photo professor Larry Mason introduced her. And Leibovitz herself noted during her talk that she was “especially proud to be asked” by the Newhouse School because “they’ve long been benefactors of artists.” Leibovitz noted she’d now worked for “Si” Newhouse in Condé Nast or some other part of that family’s media holdings for “27 years this month.” Speaking to her niece from the pulpit, Leibovitz noted that "future has to be invented."

So people of all ages filled the pews and lined the walls upstairs and down; more sat on the floor in front of the pews. They cheered when Leibovitz walked up the aisle, cheered when she went on stage and turned around and snapped some pictures herself, cheered when – after Mason noted that she’d written her 2008 book “At Work” as a sort of “primer” in response to being called “seductive” because subjects would do things for her they wouldn’t for other photographers – she waved a hand and mimed exaggerated disbelief behind him. And though University staff had warned press beforehand there would be no photography - ha! - no recording and no interviews,the place was crawling with cameras. Next to me in a side pew three or four rows back, SU faculty Karen Kirkhart carried two books she hoped Leibovitz would sign afterward – she smoothed the cover of one with her palm, the way you do with something treasured – saying, “And I hope they paid her a bundle, too!”

Annie Leibovitz got her first job as a photographer in 1970 from “Rolling Stone” when it was still a small San Francisco-based publication and she was still a student at the San Francisco Art Institute. She describes that beginning in “At Work,” adding that nothing has ever felt like the moment she saw her own first cover photo on a news rack. Leibovitz worked for “Rolling Stone” for until 1983, ten as chief photographer, and produced 143 covers for them in that time, including the one of Yoko Ono embraced by a nude John Lennon, made only a few hours before Lennon was murdered on his way out of a recording session, which was named the top magazine cover of the last four decades in 2005 by the American Society of Magazine Editors. (Leibovitz also made the #2 cover on that list – of the nude, pregnant actress Demi Moore.)

She went on to shoot for “Vanity Fair” and "Vogue," of course; to collaborate on occasion with cultural critic and photographer Susan Sontag, who was for some years her partner and whose death by cancer she documented in “A Photographer’s Life: 1990-2005.” That 2006/2009 book intentionally collapsed some distinctions between personal and family photography and what Leibovitz called her “assignment work,” which included celebrity, dance and sports portraits, rock tours, travel, landscapes and war coverage.

If all of life could be her subject, Leibovitz maintained another distinction as central.

"As much as I love pictures that have been set up," she says in "At Work," "and as important as those pctures are to me, I'd rather photograph something that occurs on its own. The tension between those two kinds of photographs is at the heart of what I do."

Leibovitz has said that her portrait work freed her to be creative in ways unacceptable in reportage. It bothered her that she saw journalists rearranging scenes of devastation during the siege of Sarajevo for better shots, and she says in “At Work” about the three or four frames she got off of O.J. Simpson as he left the Los Angeles courtroom one day during his murder trial and turned, by pre-arrangement with defense attorney Robert Shapiro, that "When you work like that you are swimming in the sleaze."

Last Thursday, reading excerpts from “At Work” to provide framing and adding other commentary as she went along, Leibovitz showed giant slides of her images. She had brought the movie-theater-size screen and projector from New York City, where she lives with her three daughters, the oldest eight and a half; the twins, five.

She began with a trip she’d taken last summer with her kids from “my place upstate” in Rhinebeck to Niagara Falls. This was, she said, “in the middle of one of my financial moments, a tough time. I said, we’ll drive to Niagara Falls, we’ll get one of those rooms overlooking the falls where you wake up and open the curtains.... My credit card was denied, so we got there at midnight and they had given the room away. Finally we found a motel, and in the morning we pulled open the curtains....”

A cinderblock wall through a drab motel window flashed on the screen.

“ was the lowest moment of my life,” Leibovitz went on. “But the kids didn’t care. And then I took this picture.”

Leibovitz screened an images overlooking the falls, immense and luminous, followed by several more.

“I looked at this work again in September,” she added. “The well runs deep. I’m lucky to have this work.”

The text in "At Work" actually comprises transcripts of conversations Leibovitz taped with the book's editor, Sharon DeLano, which may account for its direct and conversational tone. Leibovitz is not a conventionally eloquent speaker - several times in "At Work" she mentions her own "inability" to talk with people - but she is a hugely accessible and likable one.

For example, much has been written about Leibovitz’s financial problems over the past year or two, debts that came to a head as taxes mounted on the properties left to her when Sontag died, and she put her own body of work up as collateral. You have a sense of what that means when she talks about how she really has no favorite photo - except perhaps one she took of her mother - because it is the "body of work" that matters. At Hendricks, Leibovitz mentioned this financial crisis in passing several times, with some diffidence, assuming the audience knew her reference. She said she’d make sure her daughters had more financial “training” than she’d had as a child, noting in another aside that she’d “had to slow down and think about what would I do now, what did I really want to do?”

“Why, she’s in the same spot that we all are these days,” remarked the colleague I had come with, quietly. So when the talk was done and there were questions, no one asked about the money.

Leibovitz did not repeat one of my favorite parts of "AAt Work," the chapter on group portraits and David Hockney's collages and the story of the portrait of the cast from HBO's "The Sopranos" posed as "The Last Supper," with James Gandolfini as Christ, made just after their first season had aired. Instead, there were other riches. She dropped back from the Niagara Falls story to her early experiences as an Army brat, criss-crossing the country in her father’s station wagon, in typical trips “from Fairbanks, Alaska to Fort Worth, Texas,” with the windshield’s rectangle constituting the first frame through which she saw the world. She shared recent work, pictures made in the homes of famous persons. Her pleasure in scouting locations led her to landscape studies, of which there are few in "At Work." She recalled touring with the Rolling Stones in 1975 (her Stones photos span a longer period over the 70s). She spent considerable time on the invitation by Mark Morris and Mikhail Baryshnikov to photograph the White Oak Dance Project in northern Florida's forests in 1990. She included an aside-filled commentary on her portrait session with the UK's Queen Elizabeth; that wry chapter is perhaps the most hilarious in "At Work." She included material from "A Photographer's Life" about her trip to the ancient city of Petra with Sontag. She closed with the story of Dorothea Lange's most iconic shot of the Depression and how it was made at the bedraggled, exhausted, almost-driven-by last moment in a pea-pickers camp in southern California, noting that photography is not a mystery; photography is work - but "the work prepares you for the moment."

A shorter version of this article appears in the May 6, 2010 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. Nancy covers the arts. Reach her at

TAGS: Annie Leibovitz, Syracuse University, photography, Newhouse
EDITION: The Eagle

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