I ask Lawrence White, saratoga living’s chief photographer, what he remembers about Annie Leibovitz from their time as schoolmates at the San Francisco Art Institute in the early 1970s. “It was clear she was born to be a photographer,” he tells me. “Creating images was an obsession with her. When Annie was named Rolling Stone’s first chief photographer [in 1973], no one at school was surprised. Her images helped make the magazine great.”
That first gig at Rolling Stone (where White soon joined her) put Leibovitz on a certain trajectory. Since then, she’s seemingly photographed more stars than the Hubble telescope: Oscar contenders for Vanity Fair, Olympians for Vogue, moguls, presidents, artists, activists, even the Queen of England (twice!). Though their styles couldn’t be more different, Leibovitz is truly Andy Warhol’s heir; to sit for a portrait with her is to have arrived.
Annie Leibovitz: Portraits 2005–2016 (Phaidon) features plenty of the hyper-styled fantasias for which the photographer is best known—a sultry Rihanna alongside a vintage car in Havana; Neil Patrick Harris draped in pythons; Stephen Colbert outfitted as Washington crossing the Delaware—but where the book really shines is in its quieter, grittier shots.
Though she’s a maestro of studio shoots with a set and crew worthy of a feature film, Leibovitz prefers to photograph subjects in their natural habitat, where they live or, better, work. The resulting images can be as dramatic and, at times, on the nose as her studio work: Michael Bloomberg, New York City’s technocrat mayor, perches on an office chair in the center of the monitor-littered cubicle farm that is City Hall’s bullpen; surface-obsessed, boldface-name sculptor Jeff Koons works out—naked—in his studio gym.
But more often Leibovitz’s in-the-life photographs convey a searing humanity: Barack Obama, his back to us, gazes out the windows of the Oval Office on his final day as president; artist Ellsworth Kelly, at 89, stares directly into the camera, an oxygen tube snaking beneath his nose.
In a world where Us Weekly’s long-running feature, “Stars—They’re Just Like Us!” provides the template for all celebrity coverage, knocking celebrities down to our level, one banal paparazzi shot after another (They pump gas! They pick up dry cleaning! They eat KFC!) I find in Leibovitz’s work a welcome counterforce.
The quiet dignity and humanity of her portraits instead raises people up, reminding us: We are all made of stars.