Annie Leibovitz: Magic Kingdom

She shot the pregnant Demi Moore in the nude. She captured John Lennon only hours before his death. For more than 30 years, her portraits of rock stars and actors have made headlines (and magazine covers) around the world. So what's she doing shooting an ad campaign for Disney? David Usborne joins the extraordinary Annie Leibovitz on location
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The Independent Online

There was something not quite right about the news bulletins earlier this month on David Beckham's decision to quit Real Madrid and move with his wife, Victoria, and their three sons to Los Angeles. He had signed up to play with the LA Galaxy team. What was he thinking, some of us wondered? Soccer in the United States still rates barely above croquet in national importance.

True, he was said to have signed a five-year contract worth several hundred million dollars, most of it to be generated by endorsement fees rather than salary. But now two things are coming to light: David wasn't much enjoying Madrid and in Los Angeles he could pursue a new career - as a screen star.

These are not the unreliable insights of celebrity commentators on the E! Entertainment channel or gossip peddlers in trash magazines. They actually come from someone we should perhaps listen to, Annie Leibovitz. Arguably America's most famous contemporary photographer, who has shot just about anyone whose name has ever appeared in lights, she knows a thing or two about celebrities and their careers.

And, as most of the planet's population is about to discover, she has been spending a bit of time with Beckham of late. The former English skipper is among a number of "world icons" - her term - who will feature in a series of characteristically glamorous images she has been shooting to illustrate a new campaign by the Disney company to lure visitors to its theme parks, dubbed "Year of a Million Dreams".

Leibovitz, 57, clad, as ever, all in black with chunky hiking shoes and her bespectacled face framed by her mildly unkempt strands of long blond hair, found herself before hundreds of journalists on a stage at Walt Disney World in Orlando at the end of last week to preview the work. Screens behind her suddenly burst to life with the three photographs she has already taken. About seven more are in the works and will all appear in magazines around globe this spring, including Vogue, GQ and The New Yorker.

The pictures are certainly arresting, each one featuring the stars posing as costumed characters from assorted fairy tales that over the years have been appropriated by the Disney machine. We see the actress Scarlett Johansson, 22, as Cinderella, dashing down a flight of steps wearing a custom-designed Nicoletta Santoro gown and a 62-carat diamond tiara by Harry Winston, worth £165,000. Another of the images shows Lyle Lovett, the country singer and actor, together with pop princess Beyoncé and film actor Oliver Platt seated in giant tea cups attending the Mad Hatter's tea party from Alice in Wonderland.

Beckham is given a suitably heroic role as Prince Charming conquering a fire-breathing dragon to save Sleeping Beauty. "I'm the prince and I'm sort of slaying the dragon, which is not something I've ever done, obviously," he told a Disney interviewer. The fact that he had been asked to do it was "very honouring". Leibovitz travelled to Spain in December and photographed the scene - Beckham seated perilously atop a rearing white horse - on the edge of a lake in a park outside Madrid. Both his and Johansson's pictures are digitally embellished with images of Cinderella's castle.

That Leibovitz, sometimes accused of tarnishing her legacy as a serious photographer and artist with repeated forays into patently commercial commissions, should now being taking dollars from Mickey Mouse of all creatures may seem a little jarring. What's next - the wacky world of McDonald's?

Her other newest achievement is a book and travelling exhibition called A Photographer's Life 1990-2005. The exhibition has just finished a three-month run in Brooklyn and will begin touring the world this spring with a stop soon at the National Portrait Gallery in London. The project is about as far removed from the pixie-dust world of Disney as is possible. Widely applauded by critics, it is intensely personal and sincere. Of course, the book and exhibition feature many of the celebrity portraits that have propelled her to such fame - it was Leibovitz who captured the naked entwined bodies of John Lennon and Yoko Ono for Rolling Stone magazine hours before Lennon's murder. But there are also pictures taken in Sarajevo in 1993 and at Ground Zero in September 2001.

More striking still, however, are the pictures of family, children and, especially of her lover, Susan Sontag, the intellectual and writer who died from cancer in December 2004. Visit the exhibition and you will see a picture, taken by Sontag, of Leibovitz completely naked on the day she went in to give birth by Caesarean section. Later you will be confronted by a picture, surely disturbing to some, of Sontag lying, dead, in a funeral home, dressed in a pleated fashion gown. Leibovitz also included photographs of her father after his death in 2005 from lung cancer aged 91. How odd, you might say, that she should follow something so bold with something as flippant as a commercial campaign for Disney.

Talking after the press conference before dashing out of Orlando for a plane back to her native New York, Leibovitz is vigorous in defending her decision to work for the Mouse. It detracts, she says, from nothing. But first we must attend to far more important business - David Beckham, his performance on that shining white horse and his decision, subsequent to the shoot, to move to the City of Angels.

Going to America, Leibovitz insists, is the "next logical step" for Beckham, for whom she sees an even more brilliant future. Aside from anything else, Madrid wasn't suiting David or Victoria especially well. "He had been looking for a change for some time. I think he was having a hard time in Madrid and was feeling very cut off. They are both young and have a lot of time ahead of them."

Mostly, though, she is anxious to convey how wonderfully Beckham performed for her that day by the lake - as well as any actor, in fact. Putting him on a horse, she admits, was a bit of a risk, his frame being of a certain value, after all. Indeed, she didn't even mention to anyone that that would be part of the job before the day of the shoot, "because I knew they would say no. I was counting on David wanting to do it".

And happily, he didn't hesitate. "He was actually a great actor, he took it very seriously and he really loved it." So the big question. What with him moving to Los Angeles, does she see Beckham turning his talent and good looks to a career in film acting? Age means he can't play football for ever.

"Definitely, definitely," she responds without pause. "I was really surprised, I was really impressed with his acting. I mean he really slid right into it. I mean, if I was him, why not?" Visions come to mind of Beckham as Bond. Beckham becoming our new Michael Caine or David Niven. Stranger things have happened to foreign athletes in Hollywood, after all. Think of a certain former champion body builder from Austria. He became a film star and, as if that were not enough, the Governor of California as well. The horizons for our national soccer hero may be without bounds.

But back to the career of Leibovitz, itself a thing of wonder. She first made her name in the 1970s and early 1980s as chief photographer for Rolling Stone, the music monthly founded and still owned by Jann Wenner. Her star continued to soar after 1983 when she defected to Vanity Fair and is perhaps best known, if not for the Ono-Lennon image, then for her picture of a naked and pregnant Demi Moore that found its way to the front cover of Vanity Fair in 1991. Another cover of the magazine that reinforced her fame came much more recently - last summer, in fact - featuring Tom Cruise and his new actress wife, Katie Holmes, cradling the baby the rest of the world had at that point never seen. In 1996, she was the official photographer of the Atlanta Olympics and over the years, Leibovitz has shot advertising campaigns for other corporations, including the Milk Board in the US and, most recently the "My Life" series of celebrity portraits for American Express.

Recent years have also seen Leibovitz furnishing glimmering fashion shots for Vogue. It was that magazine, edited in America by Anna Wintour, that set Leibovitz a task that directly informed the Disney campaign. The company asked her to place celebrities in scenes taken from famous children's stories and fairy tales. Fashion spreads completed for Vogue over the past three years in this vein have included elaborate tableaux inspired by Beauty and the Beast, Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, featuring the British actress Keira Knightley.

When Disney approached her last year, it gave Leibovitz carte blanche to do anything she wanted to promote its theme parks. "They really came and said work the way you want to work, do what you want to do. They really opened everything up and it was almost too big."

Disney discussed a series of photographs featuring "real people" - as against famous people - and possibly even children, involved in playing make-believe. "But they had seen the work I did in Vogue," Leibovitz explained, so doing a series of fairy-tale-inspired pictures with really, really famous people seemed the way to go.

Did the notion of working for Disney, a corporation that to its critics is a symbol of American cultural imperialism, give her pause? Apparently not. She said she had her own fondly held memories of being taken to Disneyland in California as a child by her father. "I never hesitated, because Disney means too much to me." She admits to a deep admiration for Walt Disney himself, who died before ground was broken at Disney World here in Florida. "Walt Disney was a hero to me, as far as his imagination and his genius are concerned. One wishes Walt were still alive in some way."

But something else, she said, encouraged her to accept the Disney offer at once. (And never mind the fee, the exact details of which Disney would not disclose, although one official in the company did mumble something about her being paid 20 times his annual salary.) "What really drove me the most was having children and having my own five-year-old [Sarah] and seeing the stories through her eyes," she said.

In some ways, though, Leibovitz held back. She decided to stay away from representing any of Disney's animated characters. (Beckham may have been less thrilled portraying Winnie the Pooh, after all.) And she was briefly worried about presenting childhood myths in the way Disney sees them. "There are a lot of versions of Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast and finally there is the Disney version. And I was reserved about Disney and how much I wanted to involve Sarah with it. But in that way, Disney suddenly became more interesting to me. I was being asked to deal with their imagery and on some level I don't quite understand how my imagery works with theirs."

It was presumably to make sure there is no mistaking the Mickey Mouse reference that she agreed to put Johansson in a Disney blue dress and impose the images of the castle on the photographs.

Even to be asked how the Disney campaign squares with the deeply felt work of her new book and exhibition brings a look of deep frustration across Leibovitz's face. "Let's be very, very clear, that was a book and that was a sculpture. And that really was from my heart. It's the best book I have ever done, and it was a way of trying to be understood in some way. You publish it because at some level everyone wants to be understood, it's totally your soul and your inside. But listen, I am a working photographer, so don't put me on any pedestals or pigeonhole me. I am a working photographer, that's all."