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Who We Are: An Interview with Annie Leibovitz

Headshot of an woman with gray hair laying in green grass
Photo of woman standing in field with cattle behind her holding a child and a dog standing at her knee
Annie Leibovitz, Winona Laduke, Osage , Minnesota, 2019. ©Annie Leibovitz.

“The most important thing for me is a love of photography. Of storytelling through that medium.”


Annie Leibovitz chronicles popular culture like few other artists. She tells stories about who we are as a society through the portraits she makes of the influential people of our time. Some of these figures we recognize, and others maybe not so, yet for the artist, they reflect our collective culture in important ways. To celebrate her latest collection of work presented in Annie Leibovitz at Work, curator Alejo Benedetti spoke with Annie about her work and creative process.


A visitor who walks through the exhibition sees the way your work evolved, from the early black-and-white pictures to multiple digital images on screens. How much of the changes in style—over a fifty-year period—was defined by technology, and how much by your own experience and cultural changes?

The Crystal Bridges show is an installation. I was thinking about a young person who might be interested in becoming a photographer. I wanted to explain to them the journey I’ve taken with my work. Many things have gone into it. Just living affects the work. But the most important thing for me is a love of photography. Of storytelling through that medium. We’ve set up a reading room with books of the work of photographers who influenced me.

Books are the main form I’ve used to show my own work. I make an edit of my pictures in book form every few years. The latest pictures, on the screens, feel more cinematographic.

Technology definitely plays a part. I feel like I’m just uncovering the possibilities of digital and I’m enjoying it enormously. But I’ve never been a technical photographer. I’ve never been interested in that. I’ve always been interested in content. It doesn’t matter to me what I use to tell a story. I want to have the latest equipment if I think it would make the work better.

You create narratives through evocative associations among different subjects. When does that process start for you?

If you had told me that I would be putting my work on big screens fifty years ago, I would have found it hard to believe. My love and respect for photography is so strong and based so much on tradition and the history of photography.

The vast trove of my work intimidates even me sometimes. But then the threads line up, and something new and different comes out of the relationships between the photographs. The associations are there, sometimes visual and sometimes intellectual or historical.

Annie Leibovitz, Stormy Daniels, West Grove, Pennsylvania, 2018. Photo courtesy of the artist ©Annie Leibovitz.
Annie Leibovitz, Alexandra Fuller, Kelly, Wyoming, 2016. © Annie Leibovitz.

You are most often identified as a portraitist. But you have spoken about how important journalism is for you and how much you admire what many journalists do today. Do you wish you had been more directly involved in journalism?

Journalists are doing the real work today. They are out there in difficult places and situations. The front lines. I admire journalists. But I feel comfortable about the way my work has evolved. I try to integrate journalism into the portraits, but the work stands on the shoulders of traditional portraiture.

I made a conscious decision to stick with portraiture long ago. I didn’t want to dilute what I was doing. I wanted to concentrate on it and make the work better. This meant continuing to have a relationship with a magazine, for better or for worse, because popular culture was available through the magazine. I am able to continue making the portraits that I want to make and do what I’m doing.


“There are qualities that you just can’t reproduce in a studio. Simple things.”


Some of your portraits are made in a studio, where the lighting and other elements can be controlled, but most of them are made on location, sometimes in places that are difficult to get to and circumstances that are less than congenial. Why do you do this?

I’m just not a studio photographer. I’m awkward in the studio. In fact, I don’t light very well in a studio. I get by. But I would much rather be somewhere, anywhere else but a studio. I prefer to start at the subject’s home, or somewhere that is meaningful to them. It’s a sort of emotional tool. I prefer to have some atmosphere.

There are qualities that you just can’t reproduce in a studio. Simple things. I was working on a shoot in California a few months ago and there had been a tremendous amount of rain. When we were scouting for locations, we drove through farmlands and into a valley that was covered in long grass. The hills and the entire valley floor were a color green I’d never seen in my life. It was so arresting and calm and quiet there. A beautiful place to work.

In the first part of the exhibition, the photographs are attached to Homasote—a recycled building material that lends a very particular aesthetic to the show. Why Homasote?

I have lined my studio with Homasote for years. Inexpensive 4’ x 8’ sheets of it. I use it as a bulletin board to work on assignments and construct books. Using it in the installation takes the viewer closer to the process. It’s a work in progress. My work has always been a work in progress.

It seems to me also that the viewer can get into the content faster. I’m not sure when I’ll ever be ready to hang my work in frames.

Photo of woman in a green off shoulder dress next to a stairwell shot through a doorway
Annie Leibovitz, Amy Sherald, Columbus, GA, 2022. ©Annie Leibovitz.

“The vast trove of my work intimidates even me sometimes.”

Man sitting on motorcycle in from of a old building with an old United States flag hanging on it
Annie Leibovitz, Bruce Springsteen on tour, Paris, 2016. © Annie Leibovitz.

You’ve talked about the dramatic sequencing of photographs on the screens as “choreography.” What drew you to that means of presentation?

I started working with screens a few years ago when I was touring an installation of portraits of women. Just one or two screens at first. It was wonderful to see the images big. Then we had the opportunity to use even bigger screens and more of them. Since a lot of the new work is digital, it looks better on screens, with the light coming from behind. If you have four or five screens going at once, it seems to me like a dance.

Ready to see Annie Leibovitz at Work for yourself? Reserve your spot online or with Guest Services at (479) 657-2335 today.

About Annie Leibovitz

With more than five decades of experience photographing some of the most influential names in entertainment, politics, business, and athletics, Leibovitz has established herself as a keen watcher of society. In 1973, at the age of 23, Leibovitz became Rolling Stone magazine’s chief photographer. Through her long-standing work with Vanity Fair and Vogue, Leibovitz further honed her signature blend of grit and grace that has come to define much of her practice. In 1991 she became the first female artist to have a solo show at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.