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SCL Photo Podcast 27: Annie Leibovitz "Women" Book Review

SCL PodcastMy first book review of 2009 - Annie Leibovitz, "Women".

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Show notes:

Featured Posts:

Scanning my old Dads Old Film Slides.

Video Book Review: Requiem by The Photographers Who Died In Vietnam And Indochina.

Video Book Review: Yosemite And The High Sierra, By Ansel Adams.

Video of my Praktica LTL3 Film SLR.

Video of my Beirette Viewfinder Film Camera.

1 Picture a day assignment.

women_book_coverFeature: Annie Leibovitz, Women, Book Review

You can get "Women, By Annie Leibovitz" in the UK at

Or if you're in the USA, buy it at

Annie Leibovitz biography on Wikipedia.

Annie L on the Chrysler Building.

2008 Annie Leibovitz Radio Interview.

Plus there's a few videos with Annie in the Photographers section of this site.

My Notes:

Annie L, one of the most famous photographers of the late 20th and early 21st Century. You've probably seen many of her shots, even if you weren't aware that they were hers. The cover of vanity fair, with the naked, pregnant Demi Moore, which created such controversy back in 1991. The famous photo of John Lennon, curled, unclothed, in the fetal position next to Oko Yono, taken hours before he was killed. The iconic Bruce Springsteen Born In The USA album cover, showing the back of Bruce against the stripes of the American Flag. The regular covers for Vanity Fair gathering together Hollywood's finest stars, always a treat to look at. There was the controversy in the UK last year when she photographed the Queen, and the editor of the promo for the resulting BBC documentary changed the order of events so it looked liked Annie had annoyed the UK's head of state, subsequently proved to be untrue.

She's a risk taker too - check out the link in the show notes to the article about when in '91 Annie climbed out onto one of the Gargoyles that's adorns the Chrysler Building in NYC. 61 storeys up, she stood, with no safety harness, photographing the dancer David Parsons. One slip, or one strong gust of wind and it would have been all over.

Born in 1949 Annie L has had an illustrious career - the Chief Photographer for Rolling Stone Magazine during her 10 year stint there, from 1973 to 83, including covering the infamous 1975 Rolling Stones Tour of America. She has since worked for Vanity Fair Magazine and numerous other commercial projects. Annie L has produced 7 books of her work, including professional and personal photographs, and today I'll be talking about "Women", published in 1999, a collaboration with Annie's long time partner, the writer and essayist Susan Sontag.

The blurb on the inside of the Dust Cover is as follows (read blurb), and the introductory essay, by Susan Sontag starts by asking the question "A Photograph is Not An Opinion, Or Is It?" So this book engages us on a number of levels - the idea that it is a visual record of who American women are, what they look like, and what they do as of the 1990's, but it also challenges us to look at these portraits and ask ourselves, beyond whether we like the images aesthetically, but what story's they are telling - what do we think of those portrayed, what is the photographer trying to show or tell us, and as the viewer do these photographs alter our stereotypes of the female sex.

I'm not saying I look at this as a political book - obviously the introduction by Susan Sontag raises some interesting topics - but you can purely enjoy the portraits on an artistic level, and what I really like is the addition of a mini-biography section at the back of the volume, explaining a little more about the people in the photographs, bringing the images to life in a way that is sometimes lacking in photobooks where you don't get any back story at all.

The edition I ordered from the library is hard-cover, large, and beautifully printed on lovely glossy paper. There's a mix of black and white and colour prints - all at least a the size of a full page, and many or double-page spreads.

The book starts with probably one of the best photographs - of the authors mother, and we head on through astronauts, teachers, soldiers, musicians, artists, athletes, movie stars and politicians. There's a photograph of 5 women miners working down a mine in Alabama, the harrowing portraits of victims of domestic violence, the sewing machine operator at work.

There are many great images, but after looking through the book for a few days I can pick out some favourites. The b and w shot of Ann Richards, former governor of Texas, a late middle aged lady with white hair, standing resplendent at the edge of a field, double barreled shotgun in hand, complete with aviator shades and a necker-cheif.

Who could not be enthralled by Sigourney Weaver, draped across a chair, arms thrown back in ecstasy, clad only in a fish-net body suit and leather boots? There's a stunning portrait of Martina Navratilova in an Atlas like pose, showing all the power she used to become the best ladies tennis player of all time.

Annie L's photo of Nicole Kidman, with her skin like porcelain and stunning eyes, the head and shoulders shot of Susan Sarandon, Natalie Portman looking expectantly into the camera, are all beautiful photographs.

The portrait of Gwyneth Paltro with her mum, Blythe Danner stands out as well, and I have to mention the shot of Osceola McCarthy. Mrs McCarthy worked her whole life as a low-paid washerwoman in Mississippi, yet when she retired in 1994 due to ill-health, she donated $150,000 Dollars, which she had carefully put by, to the University of Southern Mississippi for a scholarship for African-American Students in need. You can just feel the warmth of Mrs McCarthy as you soak in the photograph.

Warmth, connection, empathy - all words that you could use to describe Annie L's work. She seems to have a strong relationship with all her subjects, creating photographs that are moving, thought-provoking and beautiful.

If you're looking at the book as a study in photographic portraiture the first lesson is just that - you must have a connection with your subjects. The next could be the huge variety of styles in this book - we have head-shots, environmental portraits, artistic and documentary. Using natural light, flash, or a combination of the two, the light is often flattering, but it's the story that we really need to be able to tell as photographers.

Overall "Women, By Annie L and Susan S" is a beautiful photography book. It amazes us with beautiful images, but also makes us think too - and I think I can answer Susan Sontag Question that started off the book - "Is a Photograph an Opinion?", and I'd have to say yes, it is, but the challenge is to question the opinion that we come up with when we look at photographs, and ask ourselves if there is another point of view.

End of Year Photo Assignment - "Shape Interrupted!"

Post photo's here.

Just for fun, no prizes I'm afraid, and we'll run it into January, as everyone's been busy at the moment with Christmas and New Year.

Technique challenges (No Time Limit):

No Sky Landscapes

Fill The Frame!

Dawn / Dusk shots

A Landscape Style Shot With Strong Foreground Interest

Remember to email me your photos if you'd like to me work on them for the Photo Workbench.

To contact me, just click on the link near the top of the page under the big picture.

Thanks for listening, see you on Flickr!

Join the Flickr Group!

Cheers, Rob.

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