Famed photographer Annie Leibovitz, in a visit to Seattle, shares the meaning of her latest book of images and talks about using her portraits to explore who we are.

Share story

Legendary photographer Annie Leibovitz thought her latest compilation of work would end with a historic portrait of President Hillary Clinton sitting in the Oval Office.

Maybe she could use Eleanor Roosevelt’s old desk to play up the symbolism of a woman, at last, leading the world’s most powerful nation. She’d squeeze in the photo session with Clinton just before publication time.

We all know how that dream ended.

“When Hillary Clinton lost, I didn’t have an ending,” says Leibovitz, who was in town Thursday to promote her book at a series of events in Seattle and Bellevue.

Annie Leibovitz’s new book captures the past decade in dozens of images and includes some of her landscapes as well as portraits.
Annie Leibovitz’s new book captures the past decade in dozens of images and includes some of her landscapes as well as portraits.

Her new book, “Annie Leibovitz: Portraits: 2005-2016” (Phaidon, $89.95), might not include the triumphant ending she wanted, but the dozens of images in it capture a revolutionary decade nonetheless. It was a time that saw the United States elect its first African-American president; the rise of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat; the tyranny of the selfie; and a reckoning with how we think about gender and sexuality, achievement and fame, culture and belonging.

Since 1970, Leibovitz, 68, has produced some of the most iconic photos of some of the most influential figures in popular culture, the arts and politics, for Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and Vogue, among others.

The way we view fame, power and womanhood in particular has a lot to do with her witty, painterly and often mythic images.

Bruce Springsteen on 1984’s “Born in the U. S. A,” album — that’s a Leibovitz photo.

Olympian Carl Lewis in red stilettos; Bette Midler on a bed of roses; artist Keith Haring naked and painted head-to-toe in his distinctive white-and-black tribal patterns; Michael Jackson perched like a bird on the tippy toes of his black loafers; Whoopi Goldberg grinning in a bathtub filled with milk; a nude and pregnant Demi Moore holding her belly; comedian Chris Rock in white face; Caitlyn Jenner depicted as an old-school pinup bombshell; future first lady Melania Trump, pregnant and glowing in a gold bikini on the stairs of a private jet as future President Donald Trump chills in a sports car.

All of them, Leibovitz.

That last portrait is included in the new book, iconography for a paradoxical era in American society.

Taken in 2006 when Trump was still a real-estate-mogul-turned-reality-TV-star, it resonates even more now that the celebrity couple occupy the White House, the gold-plated showmanship of their jet-set personas a striking contrast to the elegance and introspection of portraits in the book of former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, and the pant-suited seriousness of Clinton in a photo taken when she was secretary of state.

Leibovitz’s leftward leanings were evident in a one-on-one interview Thursday.

She has described the 2016 presidential election as a shattering moment in American society, the year or so of activism since Inauguration Day “like fighting evil.”

I woke up one morning and realized that I was in this extraordinary position to do the portraits of our time.” - Annie Leibovitz

Sitting in a suite at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel in Seattle, looking professorial with her long white hair, black eyeglasses, black button-down and black pants, she seemed more defiant than dejected.

“The women’s march was so powerful,” she says of the massive demonstrations after Trump’s inauguration. “To watch us as a people pull ourselves together and to watch what the press has been doing, I’m actually impressed with us … I think we’re going to right ourselves, but it’s going to be a little while.”

On a staggering number of important occasions, Leibovitz and her cameras were there.

She was there on the White House lawn on Aug. 9, 1974, when President Richard Nixon left office in disgrace by stretching out both arms and making “V” signs with his fingers while boarding a helicopter.

Leibovitz captured the drama of the moment, but also the peaceful relinquishing of power, in a photo that shows three White House guards rolling up the ceremonial red carpet, their white-gloved hands gripping their caps as the rotor blades whirl.

She was there with the hard-partying Rolling Stones on their epic “Tour of the Americas” in 1975.

She was at The Dakota apartment building in New York on Dec. 8, 1980, trying to persuade ex-Beatle John Lennon and his musician wife, Yoko Ono, to pose nude together for a Rolling Stone spread.

At the last minute, Ono declined. Lennon was game. He stripped down and in a move that charmed Leibovitz, he crawled up next to a fully clothed Ono on the floor, wrapped his arms and legs around her and gave her a kiss. Leibovitz captured the moment on a Polaroid camera. Five hours later, an angry fan shot Lennon outside the building. He died soon after.

Leibovitz’s picture was Rolling Stone’s greatest cover photo.

Leibovitz also was there in the Oval Office on Jan. 19, 2017, Obama’s last day on the job.

The presidential desk had already been cleared off.

She had just five minutes to get her shot.

“Leibovitz, I’m only doing this because I love you,” Obama told her.

Annie Leibovitz had just five minutes to photograph President Barack Obama’s last day on the job. “Leibovitz, I’m only doing this because I love you,” Obama told her. (Annie Leibovitz  / Phaidon)
Annie Leibovitz had just five minutes to photograph President Barack Obama’s last day on the job. “Leibovitz, I’m only doing this because I love you,” Obama told her. (Annie Leibovitz / Phaidon)

In the new book, Leibovitz’s portrait of Obama that day shows him with his back to the viewer, staring out the window of the Oval Office as if contemplating his future after politics, or perhaps imagining the political insanity and social upheaval that was about to ensue.

Leibovitz talks like a workaday journalist, but she’s more of a conceptual artist with a camera.

Strobes, wind machines, costumes. Lights, cameras, action.

The classic Leibovitz celebrity portfolio is often more full-on production than portraiture. Leibovitz helped popularize a storybook photographic style that playfully mimics reality rather than directly reflecting it — representation by way of canny exaggeration.

But lately, she has spent more time making simpler portraits of people who matter to her and inspire her personally: Nobel-winning Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai; feminist torchbearer Gloria Steinem; photographer Sally Mann; artist David Hockney; Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg; tennis champion Serena Williams, all included in the new book.

Leibovitz has been fearless in her depictions of women, willing to risk outrage, but she also likes to create images of timeless beauty.

Her Vanity Fair cover featuring Moore seems restrained by today’s standards but in 1991 it was so risqué that many magazine sellers covered up the issue like porn. Her regal portraits of Williams, when she was pregnant a quarter-century later, by contrast, feel perfect for a moment in popular culture when women of different backgrounds are defiantly claiming ownership of their bodies and their representation.

In the book, TV-show mogul Shonda Rhimes kicks back with her feet propped on her desk not just like a boss, but because she really is one.

“I never could have asked her to do that,” Leibovitz says.

Looking back on her work as a way of moving forward, Leibovitz says she’s more certain than ever that she needs to focus on her portrait work, a field of photography she’s surprisingly self-critical about, given that some of her past portraits are among the most recognizable pictures ever taken.

The book, which also includes some of her landscapes, cleans the slate. Now she can start a new chapter — driven by fraught but hopeful times.

“I woke up one morning and realized that I was in this extraordinary position to do the portraits of our time,” Leibovitz says. “It’s a big responsibility, but I feel like that’s what I’m going to do — to tell what we look like and who we are.”

Annie Leibovitz, who has been photographing the world’s most influential people for nearly five decades, sat for a Seattle Times photographer Thursday at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel. She was in town to promote her new book. (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times)
Annie Leibovitz, who has been photographing the world’s most influential people for nearly five decades, sat for a Seattle Times photographer Thursday at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel. She was in town to promote her new book. (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times)