Annie Leibovitz: ‘Intelligence is one of the sexiest things alive’

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The shelves include books by all the great names in photography: Sally Mann, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Irving Penn, Herb Ritts, Richard Avedon, Robert Mapplethorpe, to name but a few. And the photographs on the wall are not by Leibovitz. ‘I don’t hang my photo- graphs in my house.’ 

David Wojnarowicz’s picture of buffalo charging off a cliff edge takes pride of place above the fireplace. A Hiroshi Sugimoto gelatin silver print of Earliest Human Relatives is propped against a skirting board. Also on display are Ansel Adams’ black-and-white photographs of the Old Faithful geyser, and a close-up of Victoria Falls taken by Lynn Davis. 

‘Her work is so emotional,’ enthuses Leibovitz, perhaps providing a clue as to what underscores her own photography. The apartment is, she says, ‘a pied-à-terre’. Her real home is in Upstate New York, part of the former Astor estate in Rhinebeck, where she has lived for the past 25 years. 

Pre-pandemic, Leibovitz was thinking about leaving the city altogether. ‘I was really making the exit from New York. And on some level thinking at my age that maybe I should be less here.’ But she has been swept up by the recent surge in energy in the city post-lockdown. ‘It just has a whole new vibrancy. It’s really cool.’

Leibovitz shows me her new book, Wonderland, an anthology of her fashion images. ‘So here we are,’ she sighs with mock grumpiness, ‘on the occasion of the book I didn’t want to do.’

In a foreword to Wonderland, American Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour expresses her surprise that she ever managed to convince Leibovitz to work for the magazine. ‘I never thought that fashion, as an enterprise, would hold much interest in her eyes. Style, yes…’

Despite working with Wintour for nearly 30 years, Leibovitz agrees that she has long harboured mixed feelings about fashion photography, hence her reluctance to do the book. ‘To me fashion was the low man on the totem pole. It was a little too frilly. Not as serious as other forms of photography.’

She is, after all, one of the greatest chroniclers of our times, having photographed almost every US president since Richard Nixon. She captured his helicopter leaving the White House in 1974, and was in the White House on the last day of Barack Obama’s presidency. ‘I’m only doing this because I love you,’ Obama told her.

No wonder fashion seems insubstantial in comparison, but she began to realise that it ‘plays a part in the scheme of everything’. Gradually, she came round to the idea of a book – particularly during the pandemic, most of which she spent in Rhinebeck with her three daughters, Sarah, Susan and Samuelle. 

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