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Annie Leibovitz Has Been Photographing Famous People for 35 Years


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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Bob Doughty. And I'm Faith Lapidus. This week we tell about one of the best-known photographers in America today. For more than thirty-five years, Annie Leibovitz has been taking pictures of famous people including politicians, actors and athletes. A current exhibit of the past fifteen years of her work is based on a book she recently published. The book and exhibit show photographs from her personal as well as professional life.

Annie Leibovitz was born in Waterbury, Connecticut, in nineteen forty-nine. Her family moved often because her father was an officer in the Air Force.  For college, Annie studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute in California. She discovered her interest in photography during a trip to Japan with her mother. So she took night classes in photography at college.

Leibovitz began her career taking photographs for Rolling Stone magazine in nineteen seventy, shortly after the publication was first launched. Her first project there was to photograph John Lennon, a member of the British band the Beatles. Three years later, she became the chief photographer for the magazine. Leibovitz took pictures of musicians like Bob Dylan, Patti Smith and Bob Marley.

She also traveled with the Rolling Stones rock band in nineteen seventy-five to capture their life on the road while they performed concerts around the world.

In nineteen eighty-one, Rolling Stone magazine asked her to photograph John Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono. Leibovitz had imagined photographing the couple without clothes. But Yoko Ono opposed the idea. Leibovitz ended up taking a picture of Yoko Ono in dark clothes with John Lennon lying next to her without clothing. John Lennon was murdered several hours after this picture was taken. It was published on the cover of Rolling Stone. It has since become one of the most famous magazine covers in the world. In two thousand five, the American Society of Magazine Editors named it the best magazine cover published in the last forty years.

Annie Leibovitz later worked for the magazines Vanity Fair and Vogue. She is known for her colorful photographs of people in wildly inventive or playful settings. For example, Leibovitz photographed the African American actress Whoopi Goldberg in a bathtub filled with milk.

In her portrait of the actor Brad Pitt, he is lying on an orange bed in a bright orange and yellow room. A photograph of former president Bill Clinton shows him happily sitting in the Oval Office of the White House during the first weeks of his presidency.

One of Annie Leibovitz’s most famous and most disputed photographs is of the actress Demi Moore.  She was photographed seven months pregnant, wearing nothing but jewelry. At first, Leibovitz did not plan for this picture to be published. But it was such a strikingly beautiful image, that it was put on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine. Neither Leibovitz nor Vanity Fair expected the amount of attention the photograph received.The American Society of Magazine Editors listed this photograph of Demi Moore as the second best cover published in the last forty years.

Annie Leibovitz has also worked on several large advertisement campaigns for companies including American Express, Gap, and Disney. For her Disney series, she photographed famous people dressed as characters from popular stories like “Cinderella” and “Alice in Wonderland.”

In one photograph, the actress Scarlett Johansson is dressed as Cinderella. She wears diamond jewelry in her hair and a big blue dress. In the background, you can see her glass shoe and a magical looking palace building in the fog.

An exhibit of the photographs of Annie Leibovitz opened last October at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. It is called "Annie Leibovitz: “A Photographer’s Life, 1990-2005.”  The exhibit started in Brooklyn, New York, and will travel around the United States and Europe.  The collection of more than two hundred photographs in the show is based on Annie Leibovitz’s book by the same name. She wrote the book after the death of two people she loved very much. Here Leibovitz talks about the book and what it is like to see her pictures again in this traveling exhibition.

ANNIE LEIBOVITZ: “This show really came out of this book, 'A Photographer's Life.'  It came out of, really a moment in my life. I am very, very proud of this show, but it is a difficult thing to look back at because it came out of a moment when my father died, Susan Sontag died, my children were being born. And it seemed the most important thing at that moment.”

Walking through the Corcoran exhibit, visitors can follow the path of Leibovitz’s career. But, mixed in with these professional photographs, there are many personal images of her parents, family members, children and friends.  For example, a series of pictures shows Leibovitz’s mother, father, sisters and brothers enjoying a vacation at the beach. These small black and white images are a nice change from the many large color pictures of famous people. Leibovitz has said that she does not have two lives. She says the show is about one life, and the personal pictures and the professional work are all part of it.

Annie Leibovitz has also worked as a photographic reporter for such events as Hillary Clinton's campaign for the United States Senate in two thousand. She photographed New York City after the terrorist attacks in September of two thousand one.  In the early nineteen nineties, she also took many pictures during her visit to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, during the war there.

One black and white picture from this series shows a bicycle lying on the road. At first it just seems like a photograph of an object. But when you look more closely, the picture tells a tragic story about the effects of war.

ANNIE LEIBOVITZ: “I was on my way to photograph Miss Sarajevo and a mortar went off just in front of my car and killed this young boy on a bicycle right in front of me. My car took him to the hospital but he died on the way to the hospital. It turned out to be a very strong picture without having to see anything.”

Leibovitz has said that she is not a reporter because a reporter does not take sides. She says she would not want to go through life like that. She says she has a more powerful voice as a photographer if she can express an opinion.

The exhibit includes many photographs of Leibovitz’s friend, the writer Susan Sontag. Several pictures show trips that the two women took together. Later photographs show Sontag while she was fighting cancer. These images are direct and brave. They tell the story of Sontag's life and death. They also tell about Annie Leibovitz’s love for this woman.

Leibovitz says the photographs have taken on a new meaning since Susan Sontag’s death in two thousand four. In one image, Sontag is shown very small in front of a huge, ancient stone building of Petra in Jordan. At the time, Annie Leibovitz took the picture to show how small a human being was compared to the surroundings. But now, she says the picture represents Susan Sontag’s love of discovery through art, history and travel. She says that making the book “A Photographer’s Life” helped her mourn Sontag’s death.

One room in the exhibit helps show the process Annie Leibovitz used to organize the book. Hundreds of small versions of photographs are on two large walls.  Leibovitz had a similar set-up in her studio when she started working on the book. This permitted her to have an overall sense of the story the book would tell.

This is not the first time that the photographs of Annie Leibovitz have been shown in Washington, D.C. The National Portrait Gallery held a show of her work in nineteen ninety-one. At the time, she was the first woman to have a one-person show in the museum. In nineteen ninety-nine the Corcoran had a show of her work called “Women.”

Leibovitz has also received many honors. For example, the United States Library of Congress and the French government have given her top awards for her work. Last year, she became the first American photographer to make an official portrait of a member of the British ruling family. She photographed Queen Elizabeth the Second at her home at Buckingham Palace in London.

These portraits are the most recent photographs in the exhibit at the Corcoran.

Annie Leibovitz says the book “A Photographer’s Life” tells more about who she is than anything she has ever done. This openness is all the more interesting for a photographer who has made a career out of showing the lives of others.

This program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I’m Faith Lapidus.

And I’m Bob Doughty.  Our programs are online with transcripts and MP3 files at voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.


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