Photographers on Photographers: The Other Annie Leibovitz by Steve Davis

©Annie Leibovitz
Olympia-based photographer Steve Davis won 1st place in the Santa Fe Center for Photography's Project Competition Award in 2002 and is the recipient of two Washington Arts Commission/Artist Trust Fellowships. His images have appeared in Harper's and The New York Times Magazine and are in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the George Eastman House, the Tacoma Art Museum, the Musee de la Photographie in Belgium, and the Haggerty Museum at Marquette University. A full-length interview with Steve was published on fototazo on March 1st and can be found here.

The Other Annie Leibovitz
by Steve Davis

As a young teenager in the early 1970's, I was interested in two things besides girls -- photography and rock music. Having a tin ear and proving too lazy to practice, that left me with photography -- a pursuit informed by family snapshot photography, classic Adams type landscapes, and increasingly by images celebrating rock stars, and a hip "counter culture" of which I was painfully ignorant. Most of these images were black and whites from Rolling Stone Magazine.

Annie Leibovitz began honing her craft at Rolling Stone at about that time. Her early photography proved to be exceptionally influential to me. Her images, like her subjects seemed mystical -- ambiguous and incomplete by design. Definitive clarity, obvious and accessible visual statements were more traits of an authoritarian culture, and not of Rolling Stone's or early Leibovitz. Her pictures were grounded in a grammar of grainy 35mm Tri-X, sometimes exposed properly, sometimes not; sometimes in focus, sometimes not so much. (I can still experience the smell of film and fixer whenever I lay eyes on those early pictures, and that alone makes me smile).

©Annie Leibovitz
Today it seems, the great celebrity photographer-turned-celebrity is hardly known for her early photojournalistic work. Her post 70's color portraiture has easily earned her a place at the 20th Century Great Masters Supper Table, (and I'll take no time in expressing the importance of that work in this article). One might see no need, I guess, to look back too far into the beginnings of her career and her art. No need to review her remarkable series about Nixon's resignation, the Rolling Stones on tour, or Ken Kesey's farm.

The best of her early portraiture is in my opinion, as good as her later, more polished and refined examples. The 1976 Brian Wilson standing on the beach in his bathrobe shows a man walking out of both surf and Bible. The 1970 John Lennon portrait shows a man both regal and common. Mick Jagger standing in a hospital elevator, patient and mystic -- examples of the photographer making pictures inviting contradiction and open-ended interpretations. If there was a clear message or overarching statement to Leibovitz's pre-1980's work, it is that there is no clear message or overarching statement to be had. Mystery and grace go hand in hand with berserk fans, drugged out rock stars and political corruption.

©Annie Leibovitz
Years ago I attended a workshop by Neal Slavin (famous for his large scale group portraits,) and as it turned out, friend and neighbor to Leibovitz. After speaking briefly about her Vanity Fair style of big business portraiture, he denounced her pre-color photojournalistic brand of photography -- the results of a beginner, not the master she would become. If that wasn't enough, he assured me that Leibovitz herself felt even stronger about the insignificance and amateur nature of those early photographs.

That kind of sucked. One of us was clearly wrong about the strength of that early work. It seemed unlikely that it could be Annie, or even Neal for that matter. What does it mean to base your entire life plan on bad work? Nothing, really. Even Slavin recanted his denouncement on the following day. I realized that none of that really matters. You see what you see.

©Annie Leibovitz
The last time I picked up a Rolling Stone was January 1981. It had the super famous John and Yoko image on the cover, taken by Leibovitz on the last day of his life. His death was a huge sensation of course -- described in the media as the "day the music died," his elegy was the elegy of an era. In looking through "Annie Leibovitz, 1970-1990" (Harper Collins, 1991) I am struck how this John and Yoko image serves as the line of demarcation between "Nikon Annie" and "Leibovitz Inc." I often wondered what could have gone through her head -- to take the final pictures at such a final point in popular culture. (How would you process that?)

Her later flashier, classier, hyper-real fantasy portraits for Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and the advertising industry will eclipse the kind of work I mention here, probably justifiably so. But seeing pictures made by one person, sans directors, makeup artists, stylists, assistants or a script makes me remember why I picked up a camera.