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Though her 2008 book Annie Leibovitz: At Work is rich with many technical details for knowledge-hungry photographers, Leibovitz says good photography is not about the equipment.
“I’ve always believed that it’s about content. It has nothing to do with the camera,” she said.
Leibovitz shared this and other insights into her work before her Wednesday talk at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, briefly addressing a group of 50 fans with VIP-level tickets that included a meet-and-greet with Leibovitz. One fan called her “the greatest photographer of the 20th and 21st centuries,” matching the hyperbole surrounding her 50-year career photographing many of the most important personalities and events of the era.
“Annie always seemed to be at the right place at the right time,” said Rivard Report Publisher and Editor Robert Rivard, in introducing Leibovitz later to a full house of nearly 1,700.
“Her imagination, her creative instincts, and her knack for capturing the image that others could not or would not capture” made her work instantly recognizable, he said, citing images of Richard Nixon’s 1974 resignation, the Rolling Stones’ 1975 world tour, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono in New York for their famous embrace on the final day of Lennon’s life.
“Her books are a visual record of our time,” Rivard said.
Leibovitz led the Tobin Center crowd on a one-hour visual and verbal tour of At Work, updated last year with a revised and expanded edition to include work she’s made since the book’s original edition.
Many in the audience clutched new copies they’d purchased along with their tickets, eager to view recent portraits of celebrities in sports, politics, and popular culture – like a braless Stormy Daniels atop a horse, U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth in her office holding her newborn, Hamilton star Lin-Manuel Miranda, tennis champion Serena Williams, ballet dancer Misty Copeland, Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin, and the Obamas on the 2008 campaign trail.
Playing to the local crowd, she also showed an image of presidential candidate Julián Castro and U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro with their mother, Rosie, which Leibovitz had arranged to be taken in the twins’ childhood kitchen.
She also riffed on fond memories of other work she’s done in Texas, saying, “I know you’re your own country here,” and told a story of “succumbing to the secondhand smoke” of Willie Nelson during a portrait session, and having to immediately run to a nearby barbecue restaurant to get ribs.
During a question-and-answer session with the audience after her talk, Leibovitz confirmed a rumor that she’d come to San Antonio to photograph Fiesta royalty for her 1999 Women project.
“Texas is a great place to take photographs, because everything is here,” she said. “We literally just got in the car and we drove, and found pictures.”
Leibovitz also related tales of being unable to restrain her normal speed while driving, even after Nixon’s 1974 law establishing a national 55-mile-per-hour speed limit during a fuel crisis. She showed 10 Polaroids of policemen who stopped her along California’s Interstate 5, all of whom were thrilled to have their pictures taken, she said. (She gave each one Polaroid, then made one to keep.) They were mesmerized, she said, speaking to the power of the instant camera, “though they gave me the ticket anyway,” she joked, adding that “This is only some of the pictures,” saying there were at least 20 or 30 more.
Even as she chronicled her life in photography with stunning portraits of the famous and notorious, at one point during her talk she focused on pictures of her own family, including a dour black-and-white portrait of her mother.
Leibovitz repeated her chief advice to aspiring photographers: “I’ve said a million times that the best thing a photographer can do is stay close to home and start with friends and family. … What I’m really saying is you should take pictures of something that means something to you.”
She also extolled the virtues of cellphone cameras, and revealed in the VIP talk that she is working with Google to refine their smartphone camera technology. “We’re going to get there with cellphone cameras. You can’t underestimate the ease, and just having something in your pocket and just taking a picture,” she said.
“Part of what helps change the work is staying current with the technology. There’s just too many wonderful aspects to digital to avoid it, No. 1, and No. 2 is I’m learning about it like everyone else is. I’m just trying to figure it out,” she said.
The best advice she received, she said, was that she would learn the most by looking back at her own work, in the form of books. Now, having published more than a dozen collections of her photography, “Books mean so much to me,” she said in her VIP talk.
“At Work, of all the books I’ve made, is the one I most wanted to keep in print,” she said, thus the new edition.
Leibovitz ended her talk with a sneak peek at an image that was taken too recently to be included in the 2018 edition of At Work, made while “wandering around in your neighborhood, in El Paso,” she said.
The dusky image was of Beto O’Rourke, American flags waving around him as he addressed a crowd of thousands, many of whom believe he might soon declare for the presidency. The photo is soon to appear in Vanity Fair magazine, she promised.
She received a standing ovation.