Sunday, July 12, 2009

At Work

At Work is the recent hybrid memoir/monograph from Annie Leibovitz, the portrait photographer best known for her work in Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair. Leibovitz isn't my favorite photographer by a long shot--indeed, though I certainly like what she does, her subject matter doesn't interest me much, or at least it hasn't since her early days, when she shot informal, journalistic pictures, mostly of rock bands, most notably the Rolling Stones.

But there is something irresistible about this book, which reproduces many of her most famous pictures, and describes the circumstances under which they were taken. She is most interesting when talking about two things: the technical problems that a given photo posed, and the personalities of her subjects. It's a lot of fun learning how she ended up getting Keith Haring to paint his own penis, or John Cleese to hang upside down from a tree. When she gets the job of photographing Queen Elizabeth, she is faced with a serious dilemma--how the hell do you photograph Queen Elizabeth? The interesting thing about a career like Leibovitz's is that it consists of variations on a theme: she has a particular, rather circumscribed way of working, which she is constantly forced to adapt to new circumstances.

The book is written in an as-told-to style, in direct language, without a lot of contemplation or philosophizing. Personally, I'd have preferred a little more complexity, but that's not the kind of artist Leibovitz is, and it is inspiring to see somebody going about her work so enthusiastically and unpretentiously, and consistently. I also really appreciate the little section in the back about the equipment she uses--as a gear nerd, I was of course curious, and it's a pleasure to learn that she'll buy whatever newfangled thing comes along, just to give it a try. It's also refreshing to hear about somebody embracing digital technology with so little fuss. Though I love all things analog--film, audiotape, pencil and paper--I get a little weary of internet-based nostalgia for these things, and hearing people's elaborate justifications for using the tools they do. Leibovitz just likes using stuff to make other stuff. It seems to me a healthy attitude for a working artist.

The photos are great, of course, for what they are, and sometimes they transcend what they are, too, and turn into something really special. I think this comes from the seriousness and excitement with which Leibovitz regards her work: another case of dedication to craft giving way to art.

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