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PHOTOGRAPHY Annie Leibovitz clicks with audience at MCA event
by Tony Peregrin
2018-04-18

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"You will learn the most by looking back at your work," said Annie Leibovitz, the legendary and influential portrait photographer, to a sold-out, well-heeled crowd at an April 11, 2018 luncheon marking the 50th anniversary of Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art ( MCA ).

Taking stock of your past work was something Leibovitz learned from Bea Feitler, a former art director for Ms. Magazine, Harper's Bazaar, and other publications. "That advice made a lot of sense to me," said Leibovitz. "I published a book that covered the first 20 years I worked—1970 to 1990—and later I made A Photographer's Life: 1990—2005, which included the years when I was with Susan Sontag."

Leibovitz revealed to the 500-plus Chicago audience that it had recently occurred to her that a great deal of work had accumulated since 2005—and that she was compelled to "stop and take a look and make a new book." That book, a massive tome titled Annie Leibovitz: Portraits 2005-2016, offers a survey of 150 iconic works that capture the most fascinating and influential figures of the last decade.

Unfortunately, curating this latest collection of portraits grew wildly out of focus for Leibovitz after Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election.

"I knew what the end of the book would be," said Leibovitz, "It would end with a portrait of Hillary Clinton in the White House. I spent a lot of time imagining what desk Hillary would choose to be her desk in the Oval Office. Was one of Eleanor Roosevelt's desks available? Then Hillary lost. I called Phaidon, my publisher, and said "without Hillary Clinton, I am lost…I don't have it in me [to finish the book.]"

"The years 2005 to 2016 now seemed like a discrete era," said Ms. Leibovtiz, reading an excerpt from her artist's statement in the new book. "They were the years when Barack Obama held high public office, as a senator and then as president. And I guess you could say they were years when the culture was shifting in ways that we didn't quite take in. I wasn't thinking about any of that when I decided to do the book. I just wanted to assess what my work looked like."

The 150 color and black-and-white photographs featured in Annie Leibovitz: Portraits 2005-2016 are a panoply of actors, artists, athletes, musicians, and politicians including former President Barack Obama, Caitlyn Jenner, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Rihanna.

The book also features photos of more notorious subjects. "There are several creeps in the book," admitted Leibovitz, who name-checked Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood ( "This photo was really cool … until that chair moment" ) and others in this category, perhaps most notably, President Trump. The 2006 Trump photo features the future president and the first lady, with Donald posing in a luxury sports car parked next to his airplane, and a clearly pregnant Melania decked out in a gold bikini and high heels. "I didn't make any of this up," said Leibovitz, referring to the staging of the photograph. "They loved it—of course."

Leibovitz, a longtime Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair photographer, offered the following advice for novice shutterbugs: "I always say to young photographers—stay close to home," she said referring to taking picture of people and places with which you are familiar. While Leibovitz has published photos of her own family, including her three daughters, these days she prefers to focus her lens outside the home.

"I made a conscious effort to live my life with my children and to not put the camera between me and them," she said. "Although I see what could become a photograph of my children every single day. I didn't stop seeing them, but I stopped taking them."

Since ending Annie Leibovitz: Portraits 2005-2016 with an image of Hillary Clinton as the first U.S. woman president was no longer an option, Leibovitz selected a photo of Robert Smithson's colossal Spiral Jetty, an official Utah state work of art, as the final bookend to her latest collection of images. The Spiral Jetty, which resembles a question mark, is perhaps a fitting end to the book as it seems to urge the viewer to contemplate what's next.

The inaugural MCA Women's Board Luncheon raised $305,000 for the board's Learning Studios. MCA organizers anticipate raising $1 million through annual "Visionary Luncheons" over the next five years, with each year featuring a different keynote speaker.

Annie Leibovitz: Portraits 2005-2016 is the photographer's follow-up to her two landmark books, Annie Leibovitz: Photographs, 1970-1990 and A Photographer's Life, 1990-2005. The new collection, which is 316 pages, is available at the MCA gift shop and local bookstores.


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