Annie Leibovitz: The stargazer

She created a style in which photography became a chance to make everything larger than life
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Tom Ford, the ex-creative director of Gucci and all-round fashion sex-bomb, insists that his appearing on the front cover of the new Oscars issue of Vanity Fair in the company of two milk-naked young actresses, Keira Knightley and Scarlett Johansson, was not his idea. It was the photographer what made him do it!

That, of course, would be none other than Annie Leibovitz, who, after long careers first at Rolling Stone magazine and since 1983 at Vanity Fair, is the world's most revered celebrity portraitist. Ford, who was present at the shoot in his capacity as guest artistic director for this one issue of Vanity Fair, kept his clothes on, but had Annie asked him similarly to disrobe, who would he have been to say no?

It is true that Ford was corralled into the picture only after the third actress who had originally been slated to strip bare with Keira and Scarlett, the Wedding Crashers star Rachel McAdams, suffered a fit of modesty and demurred. But high up on any list of the special qualities that have made Leibovitz so remarkable is her legendary ability to persuade her subjects to do just about anything she wants.

With her unusual combination of talents - of manipulating the lens and studio lights as well as the people she is shooting - Leibovitz has once again done more than just capture a striking image. She has created a global happening. You may not take Vanity Fair (the issue only hits stands today) but chances are you have already seen the picture. You may not like it - Ford seems to be sniffing Knightley's ear and Johansson, lying on her belly, looks like she is humping a pineapple - but all the planet is talking about it.

This is her genius. She delivers celebrity photographs that make us stop, look and talk. "I think that at some point in the 1980s, photography turned from being an exchange between two people into an event," the photographer and author Sam Jones recently noted. "I think Annie Leibovitz was partly responsible for creating a style in which photography became a chance to make everything larger than life."

It may also be her curse. Leibovitz, who is now 58, is described by friends and acquaintances as an intense, deeply intelligent and serious person. She is said to fret that history will judge her less as an artist and more as a photographer who pandered to the stars, glamourising the glamourous and inflating egos that needed no such help. But there is usually something that people simply do best.

So well in Leibovitz's case, that she could have retired at the end of 1980 and still retained a spot on the photographers' pantheon. In December that year she took the forever famous portrait of a naked John Lennon lying in a fetal position beside his fully-clothed wife, Yoko Ono, her black hair fanning out from her face. Lennon was gunned down the next day outside the Dakota Building in New York.

"Annie has the distinction of having created one of the most iconic images of the 20th century. If only for that she does get credited with being important," says Marianne Courville, a curator and photographer who used to sell Leibovitz pictures for the Danziger Projects gallery in New York.

And there are others of her portraits, all outrageous in some degree, that you are likely to remember, among them the picture of the actress Demi Moore standing naked while heavily pregnant and another with her similarly undressed, but a suit of clothes painted on to her flesh. (The process required her to stand still for 12 hours.) She shot Whoopi Goldberg, again naked, but lying in a bathtub filled with milk. Then there was the picture of Christo completely wrapped - as he wraps his subjects, from bridges to buildings. In that instance, in fact, we had to take the photographer's word that it was indeed Christo underneath.

If Leibovitz worries that she has been typecast as purveyor of celebrity shots to magazines, then it may be because that is what she has done from the beginning of her career, even if her style and approach have evolved. Born in the upscale coastal town of Westport, Connecticut, in 1949, Leibovitz left America for a year in 1969 to live on a kibbutz. In Israel she worked on an archaeological dig at the site of King Solomon's Temple. And she took pictures too, some of which, on her return to the United States in 1970, she sent on a whim to the then fledgling Rolling Stone, the magazine that became the standard bearer for the new age of rock 'n' roll, founded by Jann Wenner, who remains in charge still today.

Wenner continued to publish Leibovitz, then in her early twenties, before appointing her as the magazine's principle photographer in 1973, two years after she graduated with a fine arts degree from the San Franciso Art Institute. She, as much as Wenner, imbued Rolling Stone with the bold flair it still has. "For 10 years, she dominated the look and the feel of Rolling Stone," he was to say later.

These days Leibovitz is strictly a studio portraitist. But at times, notably when her late partner, the essayist and thinker Susan Sontag, persuaded her to travel to Bosnia and take pictures of the conflict there, she has seemed to betray regret at not having been a photo-journalist. For a while, with Wenner, she was. She gave him regular photo-reportage from the road, travelling for instance on assignment with Hunter S. Thompson, the father of gonzo journalism, and capturing from the sidelines the excesses of such figures as Sly Stone and Keith Richards. In 1975, she was the official photographer of a world tour of Jagger's Rolling Stones. But also in those years, she delivered some of rock 'n' roll's most enduring images of portraiture choosing subjects like Richards, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and Pete Townshend.

She found that the sheer act of holding a camera, afforded her sanctuary from the whirl of bad behaviour around her and provided a source of strength. "I think a camera is a licence," she once said. "In times, it has been a protection. On the Rolling Stones tour, it was a protection. I used it in a Zen way. If I didn't have my camera to remind me constantly 'I am here to do this', then I would have slipped away. I would have forgotten my reason to exist." Journalist might say the same about pens and notebooks.

It was the impact of the Rolling Stone portraits that propelled her to Vanity Fair in 1983, shortly before its editorship fell to Tina Brown, who established it as the gospel of glamour. The magazine, along with other Condé Naste titles like Vogue, has given Leibovitz the platform that has made her such a formidable presence in the photography world.

In 1986, she was the official photographer for the World Cup in Mexico and in 1987 she shot the award-winning "Portraits" series for American Express. She has similarly made campaigns for GAP clothing. Today, she can command no less than $100,000 per day.

Add to her resume several books of her work, perhaps most notably Women in 1999, with portraits of women she deemed remarkable in all walks of life, from Muslim mothers in Detroit to cabaret dancers in Las Vegas. The foreword was written by Sontag. In 1991, she became one of only two living artists to be invited to stage an exhibition of her own work at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington.

Courville remembers how at the Danziger gallery, any new Leibovitz photograph would simply fly out the door. "She was our bread and butter," she says. Yet, it was also true that works were being snapped mostly by private individuals possibly impressed with her name more than her art. "These people weren't art collectors. I don't think her work has ever been bought by serious collectors."

The work in Bosnia was considered mostly underwhelming and it may be that the struggles Leibovitz has had over her standing as a "serious artist" may have been made worse by her long partnership with Sontag, a most serious person indeed. Likewise, while fame has been her stock in trade, she has also gained it for herself and has not worn it comfortably. Living nowadays both in New York City and in a rural farmhouse two hours to the north close to the Hudson River, she has been notoriously stingy about undressing - metaphorically - for interviewers hoping to glimpse her private side.

But her portfolio of public achievement is there for all to see, on magazine covers, in books and on the walls of her buyers, and never mind their motives for appreciating her.

And before we belittle someone whose craft revolves around the exploration of glamour and fame, we should remember that the worship of stars and starlets is the religion of our modern culture. We crave glimpses of distant glamour and fabulousness and Leibovitz delivers them to us with more drama and class than anyone else around.

One who recalls with some embarrassment Leibovitz's supreme skill in manipulating her victims is the father of this newspaper, Andreas Whittam Smith. One day soon after its creation, he was to be seen with his two co-founders, Matthew Symonds and Stephen Glover, anxiously standing in a park behind our original offices on City Road with a live eagle alarmingly perched on his arm. The culprit was Leibovitz, of course, on assignment to photograph the newsprint trio. An eagle is the symbol on our masthead and her ever-present army of assistants had borrowed the real thing for the day from a nearby zoo.

"I remember the occasion very well," Whittam Smith recalls. "I rather let myself down. I had proclaimed to my colleagues that I wouldn't get involved in any bizarre poses with the great lady photographer but when she arrived and began work I fell in with her every strange suggestion without a second thought. That's part of her secret, I suppose."

And that's how she persuaded two A-list actresses to bare their all before the whole world last week under the gaze of an openly gay, fully-dressed, former fashion guru more than 20 years their senior.

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