This interview originally appeared at Barnes &

Annie Leibovitz is one of the most celebrated photographers of our time, but it is with her latest book, Women, that she may well have made her most memorable and lasting contribution to the photographic arts. Women documents and celebrates the ever-growing contribution that women are making to our society while confronting many of the more serious obstacles that continue to obstruct their upward path.

I spent some time with Leibovitz, on the occasion of the publication of Women, at her studio on Manhattan's far west side, where we discussed the heightened sense of responsibility she felt at undertaking such an imposing project, the difficulties of collaboration, her efforts to walk the fine line between commercial success and artistic growth, and even the eternal enigma that is Mississippi.

—Brett Leveridge

An Interview with Annie Leibovitz

What was the inspiration for this particular project?

I was looking for a large project, other than the magazine work, to sort of stretch me and occupy me. One of the ideas that I'd always been thinking about was doing some sort of book on America. And it was really Susan Sontag's idea that I should do it on women. And I think that it was around that time, coincidentally, that The New Yorker magazine asked me to do the showgirls series. And I think that propelled me into this project; I felt that they were fascinating.

And I felt, what an incredible subject—what a glorious subject! I was scared shitless when I started, because it was sort of like attempting to photograph the ocean, on a certain level—I mean, it's half the human race. But it became quite clear to me as the work progressed—and it was done over the course of three years—how fascinating it was.

I mean, I didn't really learn anything new about women. I knew—I think we all knew—what we'd see here. It's just that it was visually so enlightening. And I'd never seen an album, a compilation, of such a broad spectrum of women put together.

It was interesting at the beginning, looking for a way to start it and who to shoot. I asked everyone—I mean, everyone I work with. And I kept watching.... You know, you'd read the paper and there would be the story of Osceola McCarty, the washerwoman who gave all her money away. And when the shooting came through with Eudora Welty, I said, "Let's find Osceola," and it turned out Osceola lived within a half hour of Eudora Welty. And so that was an amazing trip down to Mississippi. And on the same trip we photographed that doctor who was a nun, Sister Ann Brooks. That's an amazing story. She started her own clinic down there. She was confined to a wheelchair until she was in her 40s. She founded a clinic down there that was, again, just half an hour in another direction from Eudora.

Mississippi is a remarkable place. It has seen the worst of times, certainly, but it's a place that has so much to offer. When I traveled through there, I ended up staying much longer than I expected to.

As a photographer working in Mississippi...because it's so poor, because they can't afford to fix everything up, it has this quality. Ruins are very beautiful, very picturesque.

Sometimes when you drive this country, you go looking for America; you go looking for what you think America is. And I think that Mississippi doesn't disappoint you, because you feel like you're experiencing a heritage that's just...sort of decayed.

When you're there, it's not hard to imagine that this is where, for example, the blues were born. The evidence is all around you. You don't have to visit a museum; it's right there. You realize, "This is it—this is where it happened."

What time of year were you there?

I was there in late May.

Oh, it must have been incredible.

I stayed an extra day or two so I could visit Robert Johnson's second grave. They don't know which of two graves he's buried in.

I like that! That's such a Mississippi story!

Susan Sontag, who has written an essay for the book, was the person who originally suggested to you that you undertake this project. Did the two of you collaborate throughout? Or did she just sort of suggest that you undertake the project and then only later write the essay?

She stayed out of my way through most of the book and then stepped back in toward the end and helped me with some of the subjects. It was important to me that she like it, so I did things that I normally wouldn't do for myself. When she suggested doing this book, I asked, "Well, would you write the essay?" And she kind of mumbled, you know. [laughs] So part of it was that I really wanted her to like it. There were a few things that I would've done that she thought were despicable. [laughs] And she sort of set her foot down.

And in the long run, I decided that I really was doing this book with her, and so why fight it? I'm just going to let her have her input. And then she wrote the essay toward the end, but I had nothing to say regarding what the essay was going to be about. She had done an essay for John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Jasper Johns [CAGE-CUNNINGHAM-JOHNS: DANCERS ON A PLANE], this book on the three of them—they were very old friends—and I was living in fear because she wrote about a fork, a knife, and a spoon! [laughs] I guess they ate a lot together; they were good friends. So I was living in fear; I was just hoping there'd be something about women! Because I have no say about what Susan does. [laughs]

And were you pleased with the end result?

I was. She did me a mitzvah with it, because she basically explained at the beginning that it's impossible to do a complete take on women. She basically explained that this book is a sampling, and that helped me tremendously.

It freed you from having to try to cover every base.

That's right, that's right. So she helped me out there, and I appreciated that.

Did the two of you—or either of you individually—envision a sort of mission for the book? Is it meant, perhaps more than your previous work, to accomplish or communicate something?

I think we're so different; we come from such different worlds. I was saying recently, I don't know if I could do something like this again with someone, because, you know, I'm so single-minded myself. I had to come to terms with the fact that I was doing it with her.

Was there a mission? Not really. And what was interesting is I think that I was afraid to do it. Because I felt it was such a big subject and I felt really responsible. And the more I got into it, I realized how difficult it was and how I really didn't want to let women down. There was something about taking a look at where we are now that made me feel responsible in some way.

In the long run, even though there were a lot of people involved, I picked everyone's mind. I talked to Gloria Steinem. I called John Rockwell at The New York Times for artistic people and creative people. I went through lists, and in the long run, it's a very personal look at women. I had the final say-so; the final edit was mine. And I wanted it to have some sort of point of view; I wanted it to have stories about people that were moving.

One of the criteria for a while was that if it makes you cry, you know, let's put it in! [laughs] And there was a lot of that kind of thing, you know. I can't look at Osceola without crying. Louise Bourgeois is beautiful. Agnes Martin. Even Barbara Bush, who has been the one to take a beating emotionally during her husband's career—instead of THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, she's the one. It's like her insides are on the outside, you know, and he went out and played golf.

I was struck by the book's pictures of showgirls, both in costume and in street clothes.

Yes, a very important set. Probably the most important pictures in the book.

Oh, I would agree. Did you know in advance what you were in for when you started that series?

I was upset with myself, because I thought that the showgirl pictures—the pictures of them in their outfits—were so soft, on a certain level. That I couldn't be tougher. And I have that problem, period. I admire Diane Arbus, but I can't be her because I just like people and I like to be liked, you know? So it's interesting because it takes both the pictures to make a statement.

I did not know that they were going to be like that when I started shooting, but I was so struck when they first walked in. Because I went to see them perform—that's how I first met them, all made up. Then they came to the studio, in the course of the next few days, and I was really struck, especially by the woman who looks like Joyce Carol Oates. That's the most amazing transformation.

And as Susan says in her essay, these women, unlike men, are required to perform as women. So here are these women, just looking like themselves, without any hair or makeup or anything, who are still very pleasing to look at—very interesting to look at. But for their jobs they're dressing up to be women.

They're almost like female drag queens.


As a male, I felt a finger pointing at me a bit, as if I should be ashamed for often being taken in by—for perhaps insisting on—this sort of masquerade.

But on the other hand, that side of them wasn't unpleasant, either. I mean, there was something very beautiful and something kind of interesting. Someone on NPR said a really interesting thing about them. She said, well, the one of her really dressed up—you just mentally pass that by. You don't really look at that; it's not something that really takes you in. And then seeing her as herself, that is intriguing. I thought that was interesting.

When they're all dolled up, there's so little of themselves in the picture.

Well, you know, it's like armor. It's definitely armor. It's definitely empowering. It's not that she looks unconfident in the other one; it's just that she looks much control in the outfit.

I mean, I've always found that true in my work. In my conceptual work, when people got to dress up as something, they totally enjoyed themselves and relaxed, because they didn't have to worry about being themselves. It was a nice disguise.

Have you ever felt constrained or limited by your success? You came to be known early in your career as a celebrity photographer with a very distinct style. Have you ever felt pigeonholed by that?

I think that, when I started this book, I didn't know how much I was going to love it. I want to do more of this kind of thing.

On the other hand, there's no other way to explain the other thing that I do than that it's a real challenge. I mean, yes, it's the commercial world, but it really isn't. It's a platform; it's a really great platform. It's really interesting. It's what I can make of it. It's been a dichotomy since I started my career. You know, I started as a fine art photographer. I went to the San Francisco Art Institute; I learned Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank. You weren't supposed to go sell your work.

I started with Rolling Stone; I started showing them my work. And from very early on, I was made to feel that I was being bad by selling my work. But no one else was doing it! No one from my school. And it seemed like such an opportunity.

I thought I could do something with it. It's tough; it has its pressures. And I find myself being taken over, you know—starting to feel like a whore who's sold out with a particular shot, you know. [laughs] But then you get one or two pictures in that you care about. And I think that's what makes my career interesting, that I fight it. I do fight it. And every time I have to pick myself back up. Every time I fear that I've really become a whore this time, you know, with that last cover of, I don't know, Gretchen Mol or someone—it's like, what have I done? [laughs] But then I do Patti Smith, you know?

For a lot of the work in this book, I really directed the magazines to let me shoot my way. You know, it has a lot of work from Vanity Fair, Vogue, and Condé Nast Women's Sports & Fitness and I would tell them, "She's gotta wear a skirt! I can't shoot it otherwise!" They really helped me, and there's a lot of work that was done for these magazines that I got to use for the book.

But that's a great fight; it's a great battle all the time.

What single piece of work—or group of photographs—would you place in a time capsule to be opened in 10,000 years? What are you most proud of? What best represents your work?

Oh, this may be the wrong time to ask me that!

Yes, it's always your latest work, isn't it?

I do love this book. I'm so proud of it.

You're allowed to select it!

I am just really proud of it. I think it's really powerful.

It might be someone living or it might be someone who's no longer living, but who that you haven't worked with would you photograph if you could?

Hmmm. Some of the first lists for this book, the very first wish lists...most were dead women. Martha Graham. Georgia O'Keeffe—I would've loved to have photographed her. So having made that list, you have to push on from there. It was interesting to realize that. It also created an immediacy to make sure I photographed those people that were still alive. "Tell 'em to hold on!" [laughs]

Have you experimented at all yet with digital photography?

The show from this book is composed of iris prints. They were printed by David Adamson. I wanted the pictures to be large, and blowing things up photographically is very limiting. You actually have to photograph a very good print, make an 8 x 10 negative, and then blow up from that 8 x 10 negative. So I looked into iris.

David Adamson is a wonderful printer. I first saw his work at a Chuck Close show at the Museum of Modern Art and he had done these incredible huge panels. So I contacted him, and basically he scanned the negatives at 300 d.p.i.—it takes like a half hour to scan each one. And the smallest file turned out to be 140 megabytes, and it went all the way up to 700 megabytes.

So I've definitely entered the digital world in that respect. It was also nice to have a printer do the color and the black-and-white, so that there was a uniform quality to the imagery. I've never had that before; it's usually one person who prints my color work and someone else does my black-and-white.

I haven't really played with digital cameras yet. I mean, I'm not afraid of them, but I've had no need to do it yet. For now, film is fine.