Annie Leibovitz decided that she did not want to be a photojournalist because she wanted to have more of a say; to be conceptual rather than objective in her work. She sees herself as an artist, who uses photography as her medium.
With that said, she thinks photojournalism is some of the most powerful work being done today. When Leibovitz looks at the New York Times every day, she looks at what photographs were chosen, their placement, how they are used. When I look at the New York Times in the morning, I study the stories; headlines, ledes, structures, opinions, arguments, how they compliment or counteract each other. I’m ashamed to say that my eyes just flit over the photographs, hardly registering them — until now.
One of the first assignments of Leibovitz’s photography masterclass is to look at and choose a photograph from a newspaper. Sure enough, there, above the fold on the front page of the New York Times was one that your eye could easily skip over, but was very telling if you stopped to look at it.
Five men from China’s Uighur community watch a small TV in the corner of a bare room. We can only see one man’s face.
Unlike the others, his gaze is turned away from the television and towards the door, where the light is coming from. There’s a tension in this look, the feeling that whatever drama is happening on TV can encroach upon the space of this very room at any moment. The picture captures a stark sense of place, community, and atmosphere — one of watching and waiting. At least, that’s what it communicates to me. The photograph tells as much of a story as the text around it.
You are storytelling in this work. And you have one story, and then something happens that changes the concept that you had — Annie Leibovitz
Photography is a way of discovery. Like poetry, you start off with one subject in mind, which then develops into something else. A week of learning with Leibovitz offered me new ways of seeing things — and not just the newspaper.
Of course, Leibovitz is most famous for portraits. She guides you through her process — from researching the people she photographs and creating concepts, to shooting and editing. Her advice is to start with people who you know, or, as she says, “people who will put up with you.”
So I started with an obliging friend, who I wanted to photograph in his apartment. That’s because he’s in the process of refurbishing his entire apartment by himself. He is doing everything, from plastering the walls, to the flooring and even building the furniture. This makes it a super interesting space — raw and half-made, with lots of tools and objects placed in unusual compositions. He also makes an interesting subject. I mean, who even hangs their own paintings nowadays let alone builds their own beds?
I don’t have enough to grab onto in a studio. I don’t have enough to tell a story, for myself, personally, in a studio. I like to be somewhere. I like to see something unfold. — Annie Leibovitz
I came up with a bunch of possible concepts that would convey his self-sufficient, contained, solid and practical nature. Something with him surrounded by all his tools, compositions involving his multiple bikes, his profile against an exposed brick wall. But in the end I liked the one below, which happened when he was trying to raise the blinds using this temporary improvised belt system that he has in place right now — an unplanned accident.
To me, this shows someone who is trying to carve out his own space of order and cosiness — I love the fairy lights among the building site chaos — separate from the outside world. Yet, the shapes and colours from the outside are reflected in his half-formed space, making it hard to distinguish between the two. I like that he’s smiling in this photo — it reveals his patience and good natured approach to a project that would exasperate most people. So this photo really gave me a way of seeing him that I had not preconceived.
I think the perspective of what the photograph means to you, and why you took it, and what relationship you have to it …you would have a better idea of if the photograph is a good photograph for yourself. — Annie Leibovitz
The experience of trying to capture a fragment of somebody really made me look more carefully; at the person, at my surroundings, at the light. Of course, being Berlin in the winter, the light was awful and I had one hour before it disappeared completely. But Leibovitz encourages personal meaning, content and emotion over the technical. This is something that has emerged before — Aguilera emphasised emotion over technique in her singing masterclass — but it’s interesting that Leibovitz has the same tenet considering that the camera is, after all, a piece of technical equipment.
Leibovitz’s masterclass made me think about mortality. It’s not just because a photograph is one moment in time made immortal, that the person you are photographing will expire before their image does. I think it’s that many of her subjects have since died — she even snapped John Lennon on the day of his death — and she reflects on that.
I’m not a technical photographer, and I try to keep things as simple as possible. — Annie Leibovitz
When her partner Susan Sontag died, she looked through all of the photographs she took of her throughout the years, and reflects that this is probably some of her most powerful and important work. These photographs are personal, of everyday life, and embrace simplicity.
Leibovitz talks about is how sometimes the simplest photo can be the most powerful. She gives the example of photographing Gloria Steinem. The original idea was to photograph her in Central Park with some rocks, where she liked sitting. However, when they came back to her apartment and Leibovitz saw Steinem sitting at her desk, she knew that this, instead, was the photograph. Sometimes the simplest, most natural moment is the best, which is something I tried after all my concepts turned out to be too messy
Indeed, it turned out that there was something more powerful in capturing the moment as it is.
Photography just got you outside. It got you walking around.It got you out there. It’s actually a wonderful medium for a young person to just go out and discover themselves and discover the world. — Annie Leibovitz
Studying photography meant that Leibovitz and her fellow students had to go out every day, look at the world, and bring back what they had seen — their unique points of view to the classroom every afternoon. So at the end of the week, I went to the first Fridays for Future protest of this year to see what I could discover.
Going somewhere with the assignment of having to bring back an image to show really makes you observe everything more closely. However, after looking at all the obvious stuff, I started to experiment, and discovered new ways of seeing.
I’d love to continue the journey that Leibovitz started me on, to develop my own style and voice in photography. A Fridays for Future series, with one image from each protest might be a doable idea that will get me out and engaging with the world more regularly.
Next up, I’m learning Game Design and Theory with Will Wright. Follow me so you don’t miss it.