Debts Resolved, Annie Leibovitz Opens New Exhibit

Annie Leibovitz has shot some of the world's most famous portraits — from John Lennon to President Obama. And yet she risked losing ownership of her works to pay off a loan. That was 2009. Leibovitz says she's learned her lesson and is on better financial footing. She's opened a new exhibit in Russia.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

All right, the last time we heard about the photographer Annie Leibovitz on this program, she was buried in debt. The photographer had shot some of the world's most famous portraits, from John Lennon to President Obama, yet she risked losing ownership of her works to pay off a loan. That was 2009. Today, Annie Leibovitz says she has learned her lesson and is on better footing.

NPR's David Greene caught up with her as she opened a new exhibit in Russia.

ANNIE LEIBOVITZ: I've talked about that...

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: Annie Leibovitz was leading a pack of Russian journalists through Moscow's Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts.

LEIBOVITZ: You know, as I was walking the hallways, I was thinking I wonderful it is to be a living photographer and be here at the Pushkin.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMERA SHUTTERS)

LEIBOVITZ: Ah, yes. I'm going to have to follow...

GREENE: The Pushkin, like other Russian museums, is known for art created by people who are dead - think antiquities and Renaissance paintings. But things are beginning to change here.

LEIBOVITZ: They want to be more contemporary.

GREENE: Leibovitz had stopped to chat with me for a few minutes. Staring down at us was a nude and pregnant Demi Moore. Leibovitz says putting that photo up, along with the rest of her collection, was a big step in Russia.

LEIBOVITZ: They've been so traditional for so long, they're trying to understand how to get to the next place. And I give them a big pat on the back for not just taking my show, but also for sort of embracing photography.

GREENE: The photographer, who just turned 62, didn't expect to be working so hard at this point in her career. But she's taking no chances after her crisis in 2009. At that point, a company that loaned her millions of dollars took her to court. She could have lost all her photography - a scary moment. But Leibovitz doesn't think she would have done anything differently.

LEIBOVITZ: Would I have created this work up to this point if I had stopped and worried about business? I don't think so. We never had money growing up, so I didn't take care of it. You know, I just kind of went and took pictures and thought that was the most important thing I could do.

GREENE: The pictures on the walls around us are from a collection called "Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer's Life 1990 to 2005." And while she's better-known for photographing John Lennon for Rolling Stone magazine, or President Obama for Vanity Fair, much of this collection is personal. Leibovitz pointed over at a portrait of her mom. Sounds like it was a tougher photo shoot than any session with a celebrity.

LEIBOVITZ: I said, what's wrong, mom? You know, and she said I don't want to look old. I literally was brought almost to tears, you know, behind the camera.

GREENE: I couldn't let Leibovitz go, though, without asking about a few celebrities, like Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LADY IS A TRAMP")

TONY BENNETT: (Singing) She likes the green...

LADY GAGA: (Singing) Green...

BENNETT: (Singing) ...grass...

LADY GAGA: (Singing) ...grass...

BENNETT: (Singing) ...under her shoes...

GREENE: The unlikely duo was working on a duet of "The Lady is a Tramp," and Leibovitz was scheduled to photograph Lady Gaga. The pop star, on British TV recently, said Leibovitz asked her to pose in the nude, while Tony Bennett happened to be hanging around.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV BROADCAST)

LADY GAGA: And I walked in, and she said, I want you to be naked. So I said all right, and I just took my robe off and laid it down. And poor Tony was just standing there...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF TV BROADCAST)

LADY GAGA: ...looking at me like, oh, this girl.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GREENE: Leibovitz recounts things a little bit differently. She says she didn't mean for Lady Gaga to completely de-robe.

LEIBOVITZ: So she walks in and takes everything off...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LEIBOVITZ: ...you know, and believe me, no one knew where to look.

GREENE: Including Tony Bennett.

LEIBOVITZ: He was just standing there. He was fine.

GREENE: So, too, is Annie Leibovitz these days.

David Greene, NPR News, Moscow.

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