Who are all these people waiting for? Is the pope in town? Obama’s gonna come do some research for his Inaugural speech? Some celeb is shooting a movie?

None of the above. We’re all waiting in the lobby of the Chicago Public Library to see Annie Leibovitz.

I wondered if I were sane as I took the ticket that said I was 526th in line and more people kept filing in behind me. It was just 5 pm, the talk wouldn’t begin for another hour, and the guy behind me thought maybe he should have gotten there around 3.

For a photographer?

I know, I know, not just any photographer. Photographer to the stars. Creator of lasting images. Partner of late great intellectual. But still…annie-liebovitz-at-work

I thought about leaving. I’m glad I didn’t. While Leibovitz’s appearance to plug her new book wasn’t awe-inspiring, it did remind me just how many iconic photos she’s produced over almost four decades. And there were some interesting insights into her subjects, co-workers, and her artistic process.

The format for the evening: Pictures from the book were flashed on a huge screen while Leibovitz read the accompanying text. She seemed less-than-comfortable when she strayed from the text and ad-libbed, but as she hinted at times, social interaction is not necessarily her strong suit.

What's the meta? A picture of a screen with an image of a photographer

What's the meta? A picture of a screen with an image of a photographer

The real drag for me and a few hundred other unfortunates was being shunted off to the “overflow” room. We saw everything on a fairly small projection screen. Not so bad if the speaker is a novelist, but when the core of the presentation is pictures – well…

Leibovitz went chronologically, beginning with her photojournalism at Rolling Stone. I was glad for the tidbits on one of my old heroes, Hunter S. Thompson, whom I’ve dealt with here. It was more than hearing her recount dropping mescaline with the good doctor on the day Nixon resigned; she also explained Thompson’s influence on her as a reporter and getting at the less-obvious parts of a story. (Actually, my notes from this part are garbled, in true gonzo fashion, though I can only blame bad penmanship and not drugs.)

Next up was touring with the Rolling Stones, then on to her work with Vanity Fair and advertising shots for American Express (that gig got her an AE card, since bad credit led to several refusals beforehand). As the images piled up, I marveled at how many of the incredible images of my lifetime flowed from her camera and visual sense: a naked John with Yoko, the Blues Brothers, a pregnant Demi Moore, Arnold in his Mr. Olympia form (see a few here). You could argue that she was only capturing pop culture, and so what. She has gotten rapped for dealing with such “superficial” subjects. Yet the knack she has for getting her subjects to try weird poses, or perhaps unflattering ones, and get at the essence of their character – that is her talent. Piled up in front of you, as it was at the library, it makes for a pretty impressive body of work. Except for the Vogue stuff – for me, the fashion work is just too stylized and pointless, and it was the least interesting of what she showed.

But her work after RS has not been all fluff. In the mid 90s she returned to journalism, documenting harsh realities in Sarajevo and Rwanda. And she covered the OJ trial for a time, when her own celebrity status came into play; Judge Ito was a big fan so he let her into the courtroom, even after she refused to do a portrait of him.

At the end, she talked a little bit about shooting her family; a picture of her mother is personal favorite. And of course there was a shot of Susan Sontag, but that relationship probably doesn’t mean much to most photography fans, unless they’re also intellectual groupies. I didn’t even know the two were an item till about a year or so ago.

Finally, in the Q & A – in which we overflowers could not hear the Q’s – Leibovitz talked a little about the technical part of her work. She mourns the loss of old technologies: black-and-white, darkrooms, Polaroids. But she also sees how good, and easy, digital photography can be. “It feels contemporary to me,” she said. But in the end, it’s content, how a photographer sees, that is key. And there was something, my scribbled notes say, about looking for the moments in between the major moments, that plays a part too. For all the hobnobbing with stars and politicians, and her own celebrity status, I think she still has the soul of an artist.


~ by mburgan on December 3, 2008.

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