Annie Leibovitz found herself in the right place at the perfect time. “It was 1967, ’68, sort of near the end of the whole ‘flower’ period in San Francisco. I bought a camera and started taking some pictures,” she recalls. Those pictures grew to be her life’s work, and now, a half-century later, she’s revisiting that place and time for a new exhibition at L.A. gallery Hauser & Wirth.
The images on display in Annie Leibovitz, the Early Years, 1970 – 1983: Archive Project No. 1–around 4,000 photos, printed on an inexpensive printer and pinned on the walls in a way she describes as “rough looking” to help convey the energy with which they created–were taken as Leibovitz was spending her twenties exploring and coming into her own as a photographer.
“It really captures me learning how to look, how to see,” she says. “It’s an ode to a young photographer. I can remove myself from it and see it as a young girl, just learning photography, going everywhere, and having that verve and drive that you have when you’re young.”
Those years also overlap with her time at Rolling Stone magazine, which started hiring her to document the counterculture movements of the era before she even graduated from college. She started as a staff photographer for the magazine; in 1973 she became its chief photographer.
“While I was still in school, I took my photos over to an art director at Rolling Stone. My boyfriend dropped me off at the office, and I was so nervous,” Leibovitz recalls. “I had just come from an anti-war demonstration where I had taken photographs. They liked them and used those right away. From there, I continued working for them for a while. The work brought me into all these incredible worlds. I was working with Hunter Thompson, Tom Wolfe. It was an incredible ride.”
That role gave her access to some of the most notable artists, writers, and political changes of the decade–and it kept her based on the West Coast, where the people, landscape, and culture of California informed her development as a photographer.
“When I lived in San Francisco, I would throw my gear in the back of my car and drive down to L.A. I did my best thinking in the car, and I would spend that drive between San Francisco and L.A. really figuring out what I wanted to do,” she says. “It was funny going through the work, coming across all these pictures where I’m in the passenger seat of cars and different people are driving. That was a way of being with my subjects. And I would drive a lot myself. California was a driving culture and this is a very ‘California’ show.”
Near the end of the era captured in this exhibition, in 1978, Leibovitz moved to New York City, and soon began working for Vanity Fair and Vogue, and she would eventually find her signature style of dreamy, glamorous celebrity portraiture for which she’s now well known.
“The work that’s on display in this show of my early work, but it still informs what I do. It’s the journalism that I put into doing a portrait today,” she says. “What I strive to do now is have a sense of journalism in all my portraiture. This show takes a look at the early chapter, and it shows you where I was going and how the next chapter was developing.”
Working on the show, which was first staged in France in 2017, gave Leibovitz an opportunity to look back on her decades of work.
“People ask me a lot, you know, ‘What’s your favorite picture?’ but what I really like about my work over all these years is that my favorite thing is the body of work, together, and the power comes from it being spread out over this long period.” she says. “One of the most wonderful things in my work is, now that it’s spanned 50 years, there are people, like Joan Didion, who I have photographed over her lifetime. It’s amazing to look at that work, and sort of see the passage of time. There are several people like that. Patti Smith is another one. I started photographing her in the ‘70s, on tour, and we’ve continued to do portraits together ever since. It’s an extraordinary relationship to develop with a subject.”
After five decades in the field, taking as many photographs as possible along the way, Leibovitz feels like she has finally gotten the hang of what she’s trying to do.
“I feel like I’m doing some of the best work of my life right now,” she says. “I do love getting older. People don’t talk about it enough. You know what you’re doing and you have these experiences. As you get older, if you keep doing what you love, you eventually get to where you feel like you really know what you’re doing, and that’s really exciting and satisfying.”
Annie Leibovitz the Early Years, 1970 – 1983: Archive Project No. 1 will be on display from February 14 to April 14, 2019 at Hauser & Wirth, 901 E. 3rd St., Arts District.
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