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Annie Leibovitz: The View From Behind The Lens

Photographer Annie Leibovitz has trained her lens on some of the most notable faces of our day, including John Lennon, Hunter S. Thompson and Queen Elizabeth II, just to name a few. Now, some of these pictures — and the stories behind how she took them — are gathered in a new collection, Annie Leibovitz at Work.

In an early moment of her career, Leibovitz went on assignment to Ike and Tina Turner's house. While she was there, she noticed vials of white powder and a system of cameras that allowed Ike to monitor what was going on in every room.

"It was total paranoia," Leibovitz remembers.

Still, she got along well with the Turners and hung out for a "long, long time." Later, back in San Francisco, Leibovitz mentioned the unusual scene to the writer whose article her photographs would accompany — not realizing that those details would wind up in print.

"Sure enough, after the story came out, I got a call from Ike saying, 'You know, Annie, how could you do this? We have ways of taking care of things like this,' " remembers Leibovitz. "He really scared me. I was a kid."

That's when Annie Leibovitz decided that she'd take the pictures and let the writers do the writing. In 1975, she went as the tour photographer for the Rolling Stones, a gig she feels "so lucky" to have landed.

Leibovitz laughs at how naive she was: She packed a tennis racket for the tour, thinking that she'd have time to get tennis instruction at some of the hotels. Little did she know she'd be staying up all night working with the band.

"It's a romantic story," she says. "Can you imagine? Being young, being on the road with the Rolling Stones, doing everything, and holding on tight to my camera."

The photos from the tour are particularly intimate, including images of Keith Richards lying flat on his back (a pose, Leibovitz jokes, that was not all that uncommon for Richards).

Another of Leibovitz's famous images shows comedian Whoopi Goldberg submerged in a bath of milk. The picture was inspired by one of Goldberg's stage routines, in which she plays a little black girl who uses Clorox to wash her skin in an attempt to be white.

The shoot required gallons of milk that were warmed in pots on the stove and poured into a bathtub. Goldberg then slipped in the bath and stuck out her tongue.

"I thought 'Oh my goodness, this is graphically amazing and interesting,' and we took that picture," says Leibovitz.

Leibovitz says the nature of her portraits depends on her subject. One chapter of the book describes working with Arnold Schwarzenegger, whom she's photographed several times over many years. In one picture, the former body builder appears astride his horse on the beach; in another, he stands in a snug white shirt atop a snowy ski slope.

But Leibovitz says that not all celebrities are comfortable in front of the camera. Meryl Streep, for instance, felt awkward about having her portrait taken — so the photographer captured the actress in a white mime face.

"I think she felt really good that she could hide underneath [the makeup]," says Leibovitz.

Leibovitz acknowledges that portraits don't always penetrate the soul of her subjects — and that's OK with her.

"I sometimes find the surface interesting. To say that the mark of a good portrait is whether you get them or get the soul — I don't think this is possible all of the time," she says. "Could you imagine trying to get the soul every day?"

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Renee Montagne
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
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