Annie Leibovitz, the 63-year-old photographer responsible for four decades of iconic magazine covers, found herself a bit puzzled a year ago. The woman who had shot a nude and pregnant Demi Moore, John Lennon five hours before he was murdered and other familiar faces, couldn’t understand why the Norton Museum of Art would want to buy 39 photos of lesser-known people, such as novelist Jerzy Kosinski and astronaut Eileen Collins?
To answer that, Leibovitz, who led a small battalion of print journalists and photographers through the museum Thursday morning, and whose raspy but enthusiastic voice was often muted under the roar of camera-shutter clicks, thought it best to stop talking and let Norton assistant director Charles Stainback speak.
“I liked the quieter pictures, the more-contemplative side,” says Stainback, who selected the images on view in the Leibovitz retrospective, running through June 9 at the Norton. “She was really curious why I didn’t choose a so-called ‘Top-40’ list with Steve Martin or Whoopi Goldberg. I told her that I don’t respond to those pictures. The installation has nothing to do with chronology. It’s about the relationship between the images, the narrative of [late actor] John Belushi just standing in Staten Island next to [Talking Heads frontman] David Byrne, who really has the only theatrical outfit on.”
Leibovitz, dressed all in black, started the tour with an intimate 1972 portrait of Hunter S. Thompson clutching a beer can at Dulles International Airport. Others included a young Leonardo DiCaprio in a black turtleneck with a live swan draped around his neck (“Leonardo was a great animal lover”) and a horizontal, black-and-white composition of venerable conceptual photographer Cindy Sherman.
“She said to me, ‘I like to hide,’ “ says Leibovitz, who is currently working on a photography book about artists in their studios. “I thought about taking 10 Cindys in one picture, so I hired a casting agent to find Sherman look-alikes who wouldn’t mind cutting their hair short. Years later, I was doing a Vanity Fair cover with Claire Danes … she said, ‘No, we’ve met before. I was on the tail end of the Cindy Sherman photo shoot, and you cut me out.’”
Of a portrait of late-minimalist painter Agnes Martin, sitting in her bedroom “waiting to be inspired,” Leibovitz says the image was “deeply personal,” as are many images in Leibovitz’s enviable catalog of stark and unsparing photos of rock stars, athletes and actors.
She says she’s often asked about taking snapshots of temperamental celebrities. “I’m a reluctant director, quite honestly,” Leibovitz says. “In the early days of Rolling Stone, Rod Stewart would show up and say, ‘Well, what do you want me to do?' So my career came from people asking me for direction. It’s definitely a balance. At first, I tried to be a great journalistic photographer for magazines. But now, I feel more like a conceptual artist who uses photography.”
The Annie Leibovitz retrospective continues through June 9 at the Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., in West Palm Beach. Admission is $5-$12. Call 561-832-5196 or go to Norton.org.