Annie Leibovitz

The Barbican centre hosted an amazing evening with photographer Annie Leibovitz. She presented her new book, making us laugh with her humour and even cry, when mentioning her portrait with Virgil Abloh, the talented founder of Off White and Louis Vuitton's creative director, who had just died a day earlier, due to cancer.

Annie Leibovitz
Annie Leibovitz

She actually stopped talking while tears rolled down her face in a poignant emotional moment, before regaining her composure after a supportive applause from the audience. This is a woman who has photographed everyone, from John Lennon to the Queen of England.

Even though this talk happened on the same evening as the Fashion Awards 2021, it was a full house. She started her career at Rolling Stone magazine and the cover with John Lennon and Yoko Ono in January 1981 became iconic.

This was the first time one of her photographs immortalised a cultural moment, but throughout her career this happened on other occasions, namely when Vanity Fair published the renowned nude cover of a pregnant Demi Moore in August 1991.

“We’ve finished the cover shoot [hiding the pregnancy] and I’ve just started taking pictures for her, pregnant, and I looked at her and said: why can’t this be a cover?”

Most fashion aficionados, when thinking of Leibovitz, tend to remember her brilliant work for American Vogue, but this is the first time a publication is dedicated to her fashion photography, taken over the last five decades.

“I didn’t know where my fashion work belonged. When I started to sample it, I saw that it was a book in itself.” Wonderland, published by Phaidon, is “a Covid baby” Leibovitz says, “I had much more time on my hands than normally to work on it.”

The foundations of this book are two fashion stories Leibotiz shot for American Vogue, both based on children’s books, The Wizard of Oz by Frank Baum and Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

Annie Leibovitz American Vogue
Annie Leibovitz American Vogue

She remembers going through magazines from Europe and New York on newsstands while in Las Palmas, Texas. “It was another world! Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, Cecil Beaton, Irving Penn, they were brilliant! The imagery was powerful, sexy, contemporary, graphic… I was seeing colour for the first time!”

Leibovitz says Bea Feitler was her mentor. Feitler was the first art director of Rolling Stone magazine who put John Lennon on the cover, and co-art-director at Harper’s Bazaar, when the now-famous space helmet cover was created with Richard Avedon in 1965.

She said to Leibovitz: “you can take the photograph any way you want to, but you must always see the clothes, you must be true to fashion.”

Leibovitz says Feitler encouraged her to take her first fashion assignment in 1977, when she photographed the granddaughter of writer Ernest Hemingway, Margaux Hemingway, a 6 foot tall supermodel, who appeared in the covers of many fashion magazines.

She also mentions Tina Brown, editor of Vanity Fair from 1984 to 1992 and of The New Yorker from 1992 to 1998, while referring to her work depicting showgirls, published by The New Yorker.

The photographs had the showgirls in their full costumes contrasted to how they entered the studio in their own clothes. “Sometimes it takes more than one picture to tell a story…”

Leibovitz was also influenced by David Hockney’s work on perspective. She said the way this artist put his photographs together, “is really the way your eyes see and that really threw me.”

Nicole Kidman photographed by Annie Leibovitz
Nicole Kidman photographed by Annie Leibovitz

She doesn’t consider herself a studio photographer, and loves the way the sense of place, its history, sound and smell can influence a picture.

This is clear in her work, from Nicole Kidman’s captivating photograph in Charleston, the former home of artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant in Sussex, to her legendary portrait of Karl Lagerfeld working at home.

The shoot was initially scheduled to take place elsewhere and when Leibovitz met Lagerfeld “he was in his armour: the glasses, the gloves, the black suit, I started to take some pictures and then I stopped…

I read in an interview that he worked at home either in bed or wandering around in the morning with a night shirt covered with smears of charcoal and pastels all over it, and I said that’s the way I wanted to photograph him, working. He thought about it and he said I could come to his apartment, alone.”

Leibovitz was also really happy when Anna Wintour asked her to photograph couture at the Ritz hotel in Paris. “Coco Chanel lived there, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were regulars, Cole Porter, Ingrid Bergman… It’s the most romantic hotel in Paris!”

Annie Leibovitz, American Vogue
Annie Leibovitz, American Vogue

“And then Anna told me Puff Daddy would be part of the shoot. I began to understand what Anna was doing, it was brilliant and ahead of its time.” Grace Coddington was the editor of the shoot, they have worked together many times over the years.

“The best work I have done in fashion is most likely my work with Grace, but every single time we work together, Grace points out that I know absolutely nothing!” , she says fondly. Leibovitz shot Alice in Wonderland with Coddington for Vogue, it’s undoubtedly one of my favourite fashion editorials!

It features Tom Ford as the white rabbit, Marc Jacobs, Viktor & Rolf, Jean Paul Gaultier, Stephen Jones, Christian Lacroix and other big names of the fashion industry. “Of course Galliano wanted to be the Queen!”

She photographed Natalia Vodianova for the first time when the supermodel was only 18 years old, and was really impressed by her. “Natalia was charming and smart, talented and funny, she was also very aware of both sides of the camera. There was something vulnerable luring behind her beauty.”

Annie Leibovitz, American Vogue
Annie Leibovitz, American Vogue

Leibovitz also mentions how Kate Moss made her feel as the greatest photographer of all time. “She knows how to transform a dress!”

It was marvellous to learn more about Annie Leibovitz and her incredible body of work. Her gaze is a powerful combination of her talent, acute intuition and all the people who have touched her along the way, from other photographers to artists and those she ended up photographing.

One has a sense she falls in love with those in front of her camera. “I really like to know the people I photograph.”