Legendary photographer Annie Leibovitz took photos of some of the most iconic people and moments of our time. From rockstars to movie stars to the brightest thinkers of the 20th Century to Heads of State, she has been behind the lens and instructing some of the most powerful people in the world to tilt their chin and look into the camera. Can you imagine telling the Queen of England you need her to step to the right, stop smirking, or relax her shoulders? I don't even like correcting the Starbucks baristas when they get my name wrong on the cup.
I read her autobiography, "At Work", a few years ago while searching for more inspiration. It was impossible not to know who she was if you had ever used your eyes to look at a cover of Vanity Fair, Vogue, Rolling Stone, and other major publications; but I didn't know much about her as a person or how she got started. Pulling back the curtain on your heroes is a coin toss: you can be disappointed to find that she is nothing like what you thought or hoped, or you can be delighted to discover that her story is far more accessible and familiar than you realized. Luckily, I had the latter experience.
At Work does a great job of reviewing key moments in her portfolio and highlighting pieces chronologically so that the reader can see how her work and style evolved over time. Leibovitz supplements the images with anecdotes and explanations of not only how she decided to compose an image but where she was personally as a photographer. When someone is considered a Master in the present, it is easy to forget that at one time they, too, were a Rookie. She talks about the lessons she learned on the job, the ability to accept constructive criticism while rejecting empty criticism, and how she learned to balance her technical skills with her creative impulses. She discusses all of the insecurities and shortcomings she had early on, but she follows up each failure with what she took away and continues to keep as a part of her education as a professional.
I think my favorite anecdote was about a photo she took of Marvin Gaye that was set to run in a newspaper in Japan. She was so excited to be able to work with him, and she had an idea to frame the shot with a beautiful orange/purple sunset behind him. She was pleased with how her initial shots turned out and sent them off to be published. She was horrified to find that the type of ink and printing style the newspaper used was different than the process in the United States, and it created a terrible effect on the photo, blurring out details in Marvin Gaye's face and strange color bleeding around him. She finishes the story by offering advice about being conscious that there is more that goes into a finished product than just you, your camera, and the subject. There is an amount of planning and homework that is required to have the greatest chance of success. It was one of those lessons that was so incredibly obvious but still made me go, "Wow, I never thought of it that way." There can be so much glorification of skill and natural ability in the art world that we forget the role preparation and professionalism plays.
Logically, we all know that the best and brightest in their field were not born that way (with a few exceptions, of course. Damn you, Mozart!). Perhaps they had a talent or ability more in-tune than the average population. but it struck me that for Leibovitz, she was aware that she had plenty to learn and continues to learn on the job. The Masters acknowledge that their talent alone does not get them where they are or want to be, and that at some point, they too were fumbling around with proper exposures and utilization of natural light.
It seems so trite and simplistic that I'm so enthusiastic about the "they're just like us" argument when it comes to Leibovitz, but I can't deny that she gives me hope that I can learn and grow despite/because of the many failures I will assuredly experience on the road to achieving success as a photographer.