As one of the world’s most renowned photographers, Annie Leibovitz’s work is instantly recognizable and those lucky enough to be her subjects are elevated to the realm of fantasy.
Her most fantastical work to date—the ongoing "Dream Portraits" campaign for Disney Parks that casts Hollywood A-Listers as fabled characters—was the subject of a recent talk that brought the legendary photographer to the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity recently. The work, she said, was emblematic of what happens when an agency and a brand allow an artist the freedom to ply her craft.
Aside from unpacking the process of how that campaign—created by agency Mcgarrybowen and featuring David Beckham as Prince Charming, Scarlett Johansson as Cinderella, Russell Brand as Captain Hook and Angelina Jolie as the evil queen Maleficent—came to life, Leibovitz also took some time to answer questions about her work as a whole.
Here, Leibovitz shares her insight on the future of photography in a world of iPhones and Instagram, her creative process (how you can go back again), and how the tender relationship between John Lennon and Yoko Ono yielded a powerful and poignant photo on the day he died.
I think photography is stronger and better than ever before. Those of us who are photographers, the difference between us and everyone else is that we take what we do very seriously. There was a wonderful article in the New Republic that said photography came along long before there were cameras. We were always trying to capture the fleeting image. Photography came along long before we had the equipment. What is going to happen now is that we are the sensitive matter. You, the photographer, are the sensitive matter. What makes an impression on you is what will been seen. In this day and age of things moving so, so fast, we still long for things to stop, and we as a society love the still image. Every time there is some terrible or great moment, we remember the stills.
I personally made a decision many years ago that I wanted to crawl into portraiture because it had a lot of latitude. I realized I couldn’t be a journalist because I like to take a side, to have an opinion and a point a view; I liked to step across the imaginary boundary of the objective view that the journalist is supposed to have and be involved. It doesn’t mean we don’t need photojournalism. I think what happened to me is that I started to set up the covers of Rolling Stone magazine and I began to see more things set up and I saw there was a power in that. After that, I couldn’t go back to just journalism. But I still love the photo on the front page of the New York Times. It’s very, very important to me—I love to see how they use it, I love to see how they edit it. Those who want to be serious photographers, you’re really going to have to edit your work. You’re going to have to understand what you’re doing. You’re going to have to not just shoot, shoot, shoot. To stop and look at your work is the most important thing you can do.
As much as I’m not a journalist, I use journalism. And when you photograph a relationship, it’s quite wonderful to let something unfold in front of you. I love to take family pictures for that reason because there’s a dynamic. The hardest thing to do, actually, is a single person image because then it’s just me relating to that person. So with John and Yoko I sometimes think that photograph was 10 years in the making. I’d met John Lennon when I photographed him in my twenties and had just begun working for Rolling Stone. Then, there we were in NYC in 1980. He’d just finished the album Double Fantasy, and I’d seen the cover, which was both of them kissing. I was so moved by that kiss. There was so much in that simple picture of a kiss. It wasn’t unusual to imagine them with their clothes off, because they did that all the time. But what happened was at the last minute was that Yoko didn’t want to take her clothes off. We went ahead with the shoot [and] ended up with this very striking picture. Of course, beyond all control, he was murdered that afternoon.
I don’t think of myself as a very good technical photographer. I’m so sensitive. I’m very careful about who I let around me when I work because I feel everything that’s going on. I’m still learning about digital, the way we all are. In fact, some of the early work in the Disney campaign, I want to go back and redo now that the technology is better. Or maybe my eye is better. If there’s any secret to the sauce here in terms of the art part of it, I think early on I just did what I wanted to do, and I have to make sure that I’m working with people who will let me do that. If that can happen, I think it works out. There are not too many people who will work with you like that.
You have trust in what you think. If you splinter yourself and try to please everyone, you can’t. It’s important to stay the course. I don’t think I would have lasted this long if I’d listened to anyone. You have to listen somewhat and then put that to the side and know that what you do matters.
I find that the attention span of subjects is not that long. I think sessions should be short, only a few minutes. I believe that a session should be shorter and I do a lot of work up front, so a subject can come in quickly and be done. Maybe five times a year you find someone you wish you could spend more time with. But the idea that you’re going to get the soul of the sitter in 15 minutes is garbage. Not for what we’re doing for magazines. I do find, and this is something I haven’t really capitalized on, that as soon as I tell them it’s over, they relax and look amazing. I should be starting the shoot then! If there’s another secret that I have, it’s that I’m not afraid to go back. I know that everyone thinks you can’t go back, but you can. You just say, You know, this is great but I have this other idea. I don’t know how many times you go to take a picture in a session and, as you’re leaving it, you think of what you should have done, what you wish you’d done, or you have a better idea. Sometimes if I believe strongly, I’ll go back.
I actually did a small book called At Work, because I get asked so many questions about how I do what I do and I just thought it might help. In the back of the book are the 10 most asked questions. I wish there was a secret but it’s just hard work. Everyone is so surprised to hear that I do so much research. On the Disney project, on Cinderella, I didn’t just look at animated Cinderella or the Disney stories; I went back and looked at Grimm and all the versions of the story. It’s probably the most translated fairy tale with so many different versions that feed into it. Then, of course, I did veer back toward Disney because he certainly had this point of view. I did research on Walt Disney. I was enamored with his genius. I prefer order, but it’s most chaotic.
[Images courtesy of Disney]