Gillian Laub was given a daunting — and thrilling — assignment: Capture the famed photographer Annie Leibovitz on camera. Here’s how she got the shot.
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An article published in The New York Times’s Arts section last week, “A ‘Conceptual Artist’ at Work,” explores the life, artistry and new book of the photographer Annie Leibovitz. The portraits of Ms. Leibovitz that accompany the article, shot by the photographer Gillian Laub, are just as illuminating: Intimate and inviting, the photos capture the vulnerable, often unseen side of a person who is normally behind the camera.
Ms. Laub shared her experience photographing Ms. Leibovitz — and what is so uniquely challenging, slightly intimidating and deeply rewarding about working with somebody renowned in their shared field. Her responses have been lightly edited and condensed.
How were you feeling heading into this assignment?It was a true honor to receive this commission. But along with the excitement was a ton of nerves. The task of making a portrait of a photographic and portrait legend was daunting, to say the least. But it was also really exciting.
Did you approach the assignment differently from a normal shoot?
My approach doesn’t change; it’s not determined by who I’m photographing. I always approach every shoot with an open mind and an open heart. There’s some planning involved, of course, but I like to let there be enough room for discovery and spontaneity.
What are the greatest challenges in photographing a photographer?
There’s a level of self-consciousness and awareness of the camera that’s unique to photographing another photographer. It felt like we were both sympathetic to the other because I think she knew how intimidating it is for somebody to photograph her. And I recognize that someone who’s always behind the camera, like Annie, is rarely in front of the camera.
The first portrait we did was in Annie’s kitchen. She was so sweet; she felt so bad because the light was tricky, and she said she’s never been able to make a great picture in her kitchen. So we were actually trying to problem-solve it together.
How do you help your subjects feel comfortable enough to open up?
There’s no formula. I always want to learn about what makes each of us unique and special. When I talked to Annie before the shoot, and she asked where I’d like to do it, there was no question I wanted to do it at her home in Rhinebeck. I’d seen many images of her at work and in the studio, and that’s really the Annie that we’ve seen publicly.
Vulnerability is really about trust. And we’re all vulnerable, so it’s really the one thing that connects us all. How to capture it? Well, that’s in the magic that’s photography. That’s what’s exciting for me.
When your subject is a photographer, does the relationship between you and the subject become more important?
Yes. It was everything that I had hoped for and more, because it felt collaborative. In fact, one of the photographs I wanted to make was at her pond. It was so clear by how she described her pond that it was a very, very special place to her and her family. Unfortunately, when we got to the pond by the end of the day, the light wasn’t great. She was so excited to show me the photograph that she took of the pond that morning. It was this magical, mystical photograph. She said: “I’m not showing it to you to show off. You have to see how beautiful it looks.” She knew that it killed me that it wouldn’t be possible for me to make that photo there. So Annie offered for me to come back in the morning to capture the light. She had a family birthday party to go to very early, but she so respected the creative process that she offered that. So I woke up at 3:30 in the morning to drive back to Rhinebeck to make that portrait. It wasn’t very convenient for her, so I was really grateful that she was so generous to offer that.
What was the biggest thing you learned or took away from the shoot?
I’ve always heard how meticulous and thorough Annie is about the research she does before her shoots, so to get a window into that and her creative process was pretty amazing. I laughed when I saw her desk, because there was a big file on me and many printouts of my work, Google images, articles on me and my recent book. I had every one of her books — I brought very heavy bags filled with her books so she could sign them.