Talking pictures with Annie Leibovitz: From Jagger to Trump, she summed up the Seventies and Eighties. Her latest subject is Sarajevo. As a new show opens in London, the photographer talks to Angela Lambert

When you enter the exhibition of Annie Leibovitz's photographs at the National Portrait Gallery you should immediately turn right. On that end wall is a series of images from Sarajevo. They are so compelling that they demand to be seen at the beginning rather than as the culmination of the show. A fallen bicycle, a huge comma of black blood in its wake; a new-born baby arched in the air, still umbilically attached; a murdered man with bloodied face cradled in his own plaid coat. Many were taken only last month. After nearly 35 years and millions of negatives, Leibovitz's eye is as tender and ruthless as ever.

The show spans her earliest days with Rolling Stone - then an irreverent, pop stars 'n' dope heads' magazine - through the Reagan years, whose denizens she captured like gaudy butterflies for Vanity Fair, ending with her mature work, altogether more cerebral and pensive. She is pleased with the way her 146 pictures are displayed.

'I love this beautiful, dignified low light for photographs. It's very British. Photography is the study of light, and one of the interesting things about going to Sarajevo was that there was no electricity - so I went back to natural light.' Given the complicated lighting set-ups she normally uses, it was ironic that I found the pictures from Sarajevo the best in the show. She flinched. 'That has a double edge - a bitter-sweet feel to it. Yes, to me they are the most moving pictures. I was trying to crawl back to where I started, the purity of the early work.'

Annie Leibovitz is the highest-paid photographer in the US, capable of earning at least pounds 1m a year. Her style is so famous that she doesn't need to sign her portraits. They lent discreet class to the retail giant Gap, whose clients she photographed for one campaign, and to American Express, for which she did another. Advertisers do not care what she costs. Even at dollars 50,000 a day, she's worth it.

She is very difficult, I was warned, she'll be rude, impatient, arrogant - typical criticisms levelled at successful women. To assistants she is a slave driver, her perfectionism lashing them on to longer days and greater efforts, as she stage manages her shots like one-act plays whose props, costumes and lighting must be flawless. To her subjects she is all charm and persuasion, for they must be cajoled. She is very much in control. I may have been lucky, but she could not have been kinder or more accommodating.

She started using a camera the way most people do, to take photographs of her family. The show begins with pictures of her parents, touching in their affectionate intimacy. One shows her father in profile at the wheel of the family car. 'That's him driving me to the airport after a visit. It's typical of my father that he never talked to me until that ride. Then he'd say, 'When're you gonna get married, Annie? When're you gonna get a real job?' ' She laughs.

Annie Leibovitz is a third-generation American whose great-grandparents were Russian Jews. Her mother grew up in New York in an educated middle-class family. Her father's parents had emigrated from Romania, and his family spoke Yiddish, while he was 'a rough kinda guy' whose prospective in-laws disapproved of his factory job. Annie's parents married despite this opposition and, with the advent of the Second World War, her father joined the air force. When it ended he had a brief spell in business before returning to the air force - 'a very unusual career for someone Jewish' - and having six children. Annie, born in 1949, is the third.

'It was a wonderful upbringing because we got to travel all over the United States, living out of a station wagon. My sister pointed out that my first frame was the car windshield, looking down the highway. My parents let us know we were loved, which is the important thing. You can't get through life without that.' She is still close to her family. Is being Jewish important to her? 'I'm not a practising Jew, but I feel very Jewish.'

Leibovitz expresses herself best through her pictures. Put her in front of them, and she is fluent and informative. Sit her away from them and she starts twiddling her hair and twisting her long, strong hands. Photography is said to be her life, leaving her no time for anything else. Is this true? She frowns and mutters indecipherably, 'Uh-hmm . . .' which could mean yes or no. I wait.

'When one has a career or an art like this, it does dominate your life. It doesn't start at 9am and stop at 6pm. You think about it all the time. This is a wonderful but very demanding life. I can't separate what's personal from what's work. I don't live with anybody but I have some great friendships. I have a great apartment; I collect photographic books and furniture; I love looking at buildings; then there's the studio . . .' Her voice trails away.

She has the strong, clever, austere look of successful Jewish women, such as Susan Sontag, a good friend, Gloria Steinem or Barbra Streisand. Leibovitz is lanky, six feet tall, funnier and more beautiful than most photographs suggest. She wears no make-up and there is no self-portrait in the show. She seems without vanity; perhaps because she has photographed many professional beauties, some ageing ungracefully under layers of 'slap'. She looks anonymous-expensive; her clothes relaxed. She always dresses in black, for simplicity, comfort and understated authority. It's very effective.

Leibovitz started out thinking she was going to be a painter, and attended the San Francisco Art Institute. 'I was a very bad hippie but it was that time in the late Sixties, during Vietnam, when it was pretty confusing to have a father in the military, so I spent a year in Israel on a kibbutz, with the idea that I might not come back. I learnt Hebrew for five or six months; I learnt discipline and the work ethic. It straightened me out; I went back to school and the next semester I submitted my portfolio to Rolling Stone.'

The magazine took her on aged 20 and, in the 13 years that followed, Leibovitz became their chief photographer and the chronicler of the Seventies. She toured with the Rolling Stones, doing what pop people did, sharing their risks and addictions, but always with a camera in one hand. She left behind an incomparable record of sleaze and unmade hotel beds on which are sprawled pop stars, their wives and girlfriends, singed by the hot light of fame.

Leibovitz went on to become the chronicler of the Eighties - a decade she calls 'rich, fat and vulgar'. Together with Tina Brown at Vanity Fair, she created a new look for the magazine that made it essential reading for celebrities and nobodies alike. The middle section of her show displays the icons of that period: Arnold Schwarzenegger, impossibly muscular; the Trumps before their break- up, all glitter, pout and sulk. Most of the famous VF cover-shots are here. But the Nineties are under way, and Leibovitz hopes she has moved on.

The final section of the exhibition starts with three portraits of women with HIV/Aids. Next is a portrait composed of 15 magnetic resonance images: brain scans, which disclose the skull slice by slice. The first small section looks like a foetus with a large ear. Gradually the head grows until the central scan is gnarled and toothy, like an old man or an angry ape. The images dwindle again to a curled up, pearly, new-born skull. It is a quite brilliant rendering of the progress from ape to angel, infant to old crone. The subject is that weird singer-cum-artist in electronics, Laurie Anderson - which is why the rather strange photographs are so apt.

Leibovitz has a huge studio in downtown Manhattan and several assistants, but the ideas behind the portraits are her own and the photographic means often unexpectedly simple. She tries to reproduce what the human eye would see. 'I don't like long lenses, I prefer to retain the human distance.'

Is she tempted to make films?

'I did a series of little films for the Brooklyn Academy of Dance and realised then that the still image is silent; that we work with line and form to create emotion, and that's what makes it so interesting. I actually like the limitations of the still photograph. The mystery of photography: that's enough to work with. I don't have any other ambitions but to figure this out. There are so many variables - light; what your subject is like; and how you interact.

'Jacques-Henri Lartigue was a very big influence on me, because of his longevity. He made me realise the importance of work as a body and that's why I'm completely dedicated to doing it over a lifetime.'

Her detractors call Leibovitz an opportunist. In the Seventies, they point out, she photographed mainly the world of sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll; in the Eighties she photographed the overblown world of the mega-rich and famous. When in the Nineties her work takes on a more serious and reflective note, does this make her a vicar of Bray, turning with each passing phase, or a sensitive barometer of her own times?

'I know that I'm affected by my times - by what I watch on TV and who I talk to. It's not just my eye that goes into it. Your work and art is something you have to take care of. You have to feed it and keep it alive - but what a wonderful thing to do]'

Back to the pictures from Sarajevo. How did she come to take that curving bloodstain like a giant brush-stroke with only a collapsed bicycle and no victim to be seen? 'I was so upset that I thought I was photographing in colour but it was black- and-white film, and about three times over-exposed. We chanced upon it as we were driving along. A mortar went off and three people were killed, including the boy on the bicycle. He was put in the back of our car and died on the way to hospital.

'Sarajevo is unbelievably rich in life and death; a place where the people have no walls, literally, and no skin, and everyone knows exactly who they are. All veneer has been rubbed off and you see a microcosm of life.'

This indeed is what her photographs have always done: stripped off the protective skins to reveal a microcosm of life.

'Annie Leibovitz: Photographs 1970-1990' is at the National Portrait Gallery from tomorrow until 30 May, admission pounds 3.50. The exhibition will be reviewed in the 'Independent' on 9 March.

(Photograph omitted)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
Arts and Entertainment
Up my street: The residents of the elegant Moray Place in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town
tvBBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past
Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been the teaching profession's favourite teacher
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

    £30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

    Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

    £34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

    Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

    Developer - WinForms, C#

    £280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

    Day In a Page

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform