I wasn’t sure what to expect when I attended a talk with Annie Leibovitz last Thursday, Feb. 28, at the Arlington Theatre in downtown Santa Barbara. Before I entered the theater, Leibovitz, considered one of the most talented and successful photographers of all time, wasn’t a person to me; she was an enigmatic figure within the realm of photography whose name I had only seen in magazine photo captions.
I was excited to find out who she was and, evidently, so was everyone else around me. I arrived twenty minutes early to complete chaos: a mass of people trying to make their way into the theater. The crowd filled the theater to near capacity as everyone shuffled their way inside.
Old and young alike proudly snapped Instagram photos and Snapchats of their tickets, showing off to their friends and family where they were for the night. It was clear: Leibovitz had fans, and a lot of them.
The event started at 7:40 p.m. with an introduction from Pico Iyer, an American essayist known for his travel writing. He eloquently described Leibovitz’s uncanny ability to mix the private and public, something that makes her so appealing to the modern moment.
It’s an astute observation. Leibovitz is known for her striking portraiture of the world’s most famous and notorious figures, including the likes of Angelina Jolie, President Barack Obama, and even Stormy Daniels, the adult film star primarily known for her past relationship with the current president.
She has the ability to capture the intimate in the world’s most elusive. But the woman who has become such a legend herself is anything but a mystery, which became clear when it came time to hear her speak.
Dressed simply in a black long sleeve and black trousers, she shouted an enthusiastic and lively “How are ya!” to the crowd, which was met with enthusiastic cheers and applause. It was far from the formal introduction I was expecting. Within the first thirty seconds she was on stage, Leibovitz made it obvious that the event was not a lecture, but a chat.
Starting her talk proper, she began by going through some of the photos in her book “Annie Leibovitz at Work,” a commentary about her career through her own eyes. She showed photos she captured during President Richard Nixon’s resignation as well as photos she took on tour with famous rock stars like Mick Jagger while working for the Rolling Stones at the beginning of her career.
“I wasn’t ready for abstraction, I wanted reality,” she stated, talking about how she came to be a photographer. Leibovitz originally went to the San Francisco Art Institute for painting before ultimately finding her calling in photography.
As she flipped through her photos, the audience audibly reacted with gasps or small exclamations of amazement. Decades after she had taken these photos, it was still apparent that they were timeless in their cultural impact.
She didn’t shy away from anything during the talk, showing photos from the death of her father, her close friend Susan Sontag, and a series of portraits of police officers who had given her tickets. Nothing was off limits; Leibovitz wasn’t afraid to disclose.
Showing a photo of Stormy Daniels, she told the audience that Daniels wasn’t wearing a bra in their photoshoot together. She said that some of her favorite people to photograph were comedians because they are “usually manic-depressive geniuses.”
It was the eccentric details and stories that Leibovitz added to accompany her photos that made the talk intimate but also absolutely hilarious. It was a night of laughs throughout the entire ninety-minute talk.
While the talk was with a photographer, the night was less about the photos and more about the human element of photography.
“The most rewarding part of the job is meeting people throughout their life and photographing them over time,” she said with a photo of Joan Didion, an influential writer of the New Journalism movement, behind her. Leibovitz has photographed her multiple times for publications such as Vanity Fair and Vogue.
Leibovitz has become a documenter of cultural moments, but what makes her work impactful and timeless is her ability to capture the personal. For Leibovitz, the work is not what you capture but whom you capture. She has become larger than life but the focus for her is still small: on the individual.