Annie Leibovitz: The View From Behind The Lens Whoopi Goldberg in a milk bath? Meryl Streep in a white mime face? After training her lens on some of the most notable faces of our day, the photographer reveals the stories behind some of her famous portraits.
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Annie Leibovitz: The View From Behind The Lens

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Annie Leibovitz: The View From Behind The Lens

Annie Leibovitz: The View From Behind The Lens

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As an art student in 1970s San Francisco, Annie Leibovitz changed her major from painting to photography. She found painting isolating, and photography took her outside herself. Ever since, Annie Leibovitz has been out in the world photographing luminaries like John Lennon, Hunter S. Thompson, and Queen Elizabeth for Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair. Some of these pictures and the stories behind how she took them are gathered in a new collection, "Annie Leibovitz at Work." One of her earliest stories is about how a musician, Ike Turner, quite unintentionally helped her define her role as a photographer.

Ms. ANNIE LEIBOVITZ (Portrait Photographer): I went down to see Ike and Tina Turner's house, just south of San Francisco. And there were cameras in all the rooms, and he had like little vials filled with little white powder. I didn't know what they - what it was and...

MONTAGNE: And those cameras were - he could - Ike Turner could see...

Ms. LEIBOVITZ: He could monitor what was going on in every room. It was total paranoia. I mean, we got along fantastic, and you know, I took some really nice pictures. He let me, you know, hang out for a long, long time. And then, you know, I got back to San Francisco, and I just, you know, just started talking to the writer about everything I saw. And then I was really surprised that it ended up in the story.

And sure enough, after the story came out, I got a call from Ike saying, you know, Annie, how could you do this? You know, we have ways of taking care of things like this. And I was like - I mean, he really scared me. I was a kid, you know. So in the long run, it's funny, but also it was the beginning of my thinking, maybe when I go and take pictures, you know, I'll - like every man for themselves, you know.

MONTAGNE: First of all, your life was being threatened. But secondly, yeah, in other words I go in and get my stuff, and you - you're on your own.


MONTAGNE: One thing - jumping ahead a little - for a time in 1975, you went as the official tour photographer for The Rolling Stones.

Ms. LEIBOVITZ: You know, I was so lucky. And I've tried to say this many, many times. I was interested in photography, you know, and not rock and roll or music or what - you know, I was interested in always trying to get a great photograph.

MONTAGNE: Although, I want to ask you about one of those pictures, but you do tell a funny story at the beginning about how, in a sense, naive you were because you showed up with what...

Ms. LEIBOVITZ: Oh, yeah.

MONTAGNE: A tennis racket?

Ms. LEIBOVITZ: I just thought, well, God, the tour. That's great. We're going to all these different cities. We're going to be staying at the best hotels in every town. They're going to have a tennis pro there. So I'm going to take some lessons. And that's what I'll do. And of course, you know, two days into the tour, I never saw the daylight again.

I mean, I was up all night. It's a romantic story. I mean, can you imagine? I mean, being young, being on the road with The Rolling Stones, you know, doing everything and, you know, holding on tight to my camera.

MONTAGNE: Well, one thing about that tour, the pictures are strikingly intimate, some of them. Keith Richards flat on his back.

Ms. LEIBOVITZ: That wasn't so unusual. I mean, he was always, like, lying down. There's very few pictures of Keith standing up.

(Soundbite of laughter)


Ms. LEIBOVITZ: I mean, it is amazing how your body can bend.

MONTAGNE: Would you mind going through just a lightning round of just a few of your conceptual pictures that people will almost know instantly when mentioned? One I'm thinking immediately of is Whoopi Goldberg submerged in a bath of milk.

Ms. LEIBOVITZ: This was for a series for Vanity Fair magazine on young, upcoming comedians. All I had for research was a very badly done video of her nightclub routine. In that, she plays a little girl who is trying to use Clorox to - thinking that if she washes her skin, that underneath it will be white. And it was a very poignant part of her show. And, you know, I met her at her house in Berkley. I mean, at her apartment. And we went to - her friend had a better bathtub, and I was thinking that she should just be in the bathtub scrubbing, as if she's scrubbing off her black skin.

A friend of mine, who was an advertising photographer, said that milk photographs really nicely white. So we had gallons and gallons of milk in pots on the stove, and we heated them up because I couldn't put her into cold milk. And then we poured the milk in, and then she got into the milk bath. And she kind of slipped down into it like that. And I went, oh, my goodness, this is graphically amazing and interesting. And we took that picture.

MONTAGNE: And you just see her face with her tongue out, arms, legs, and then milk.


MONTAGNE: And then there's a photograph here of Meryl Streep also as a young actress. And as you describe it, you had to get over a different issue. She really didn't want to have her picture taken.

Ms. LEIBOVITZ: Right. She was just - felt very awkward with all the attention, and she never has enjoyed having her picture taken. A lot of actors become actors because they want to get into someone else's, you know, skin, so to speak. So when I finally got her to the studio, I had this idea at the last minute about a clown face, you know, underneath it.

MONTAGNE: What it is, is she's in white face.

Ms. LEIBOVITZ: White face. White face, right. Yeah. And she - I think she felt really good that she could hide, you know, underneath it.

MONTAGNE: There's also - you have a portrait of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his movie days. And he seems - it jumps out at you that he loved posing for a photograph. He's in white jodhpurs, astride a white horse, a cigar in his mouth.

Ms. LEIBOVITZ: That's from a section in the book where I took one subject that I worked with over many, many years, and there's at least four pictures of Arnold. And it ranges from 1975, early pumping iron pictures, to his movie star career. The picture of him on the horse, we were doing a cover of Vanity Fair, and he asked should he bring along his horse because he rides his horse up and down the beach. Well, this horse arrives, and it's this beautiful, white, strong horse, and Arnold gets on it in these white riding pants, and his thigh looks like the horse's thigh, you know, so. It was a very - and the photograph has endured. I mean, the chapter is more about working with someone over my lifetime as well as their lifetime.

MONTAGNE: Are you looking or hoping or wanting to get to the...

Ms. LEIBOVITZ: Heart of the matter?

MONTAGNE: Insides of the person?

Ms. LEIBOVITZ: Well, I mean, I think it depends so much on the person, you know, what they want to project or what they want to say. Even my work is criticized sometimes for being too, you know, too on the surface. And I sometimes find the surface interesting. To say that the mark of a good portrait is whether you get them or you get the soul or whatever, I just don't think this is possible all the time, or some of the time. And God, could you imagine trying to get the soul every single day? I think you'd have to lay down, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEIBOVITZ: You'd have to go to sleep. Personally I don't know. I mean, could I get the soul? I guess I probably could if, you know, you gave me a year or so with each person. I would get the soul, I promise you. I just don't think it's necessary, except for the people who love you and you love them and maybe you want to go that step further.

MONTAGNE: Annie Leibovitz, thank you very much for talking with us.


MONTAGNE: And her new book of photographs out today is called "Annie Leibovitz at Work." This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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