Master Series: FAQs

Annie Leibovitz Answers a few Frequently Asked Questions.

1. What advice do you have for a young photographer who is just starting out?

I've said about a million times that the best thing a young photographer can do is stay close to home. Start with your friends and family, the people who will put up with you. Discover what it means to be close to your work, to be intimate with a subject. I guess what I'm really saying is that you should take pictures of something that has meaning for you. When I was a young photographer at Rolling Stone, I learned that what I did mattered. This may have been because I was published, but whether you're published or not, you have to care about what you do.

2. Who's the most difficult person you've ever photographed?

The difficulties usually don't have much to do with the subject. What causes problems are things like the weather. It's too sunny or too dark. You might have a bad hair person. Bad makeup. The strobe doesn't fire fast enough, or doesn't fire at all. That being said, in my experience the most difficult people are the people who have been in show business the longest. Especially those who have been in show business since they were children. They've been catered to for so long that they have a very poor sense of reality.

3. How many pictures do you take?

Certainly fewer than when I was young.

4. Are you happy with the move from film to digital?

I remember when Kodachrome II was phased out in the '70s. A lot of photographers bought cartons of it and stored it in their refrigerators. But the bottom line was that it was gone. Digital is here whether we like it or not. In the beginning, I let the process take over. Productions were incredibly complicated. The rhythm of the shoot changed. I had to explain to the subject that I was going to go across the room to look at the picture on the monitor, which seemed a little rude. But now I don't usually have a monitor on the set, and if I do, I don't look at it very often. We just use a laptop, and I'm not tethered to it. I don't even look at the back of the camera very often.

5. Where do you get your ideas?

I do my homework. When I was preparing to photograph Carla Bruni-the wife of Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of France-in the Élysée Palace, I looked at pictures of the palace. I looked at pictures of other people who had lived in the palace. Pictures of couples in love. Pictures that other photographers had taken of Bruni. I'm a fan of photography. A student, if you will. Something in the history of photography might contribute to the style I choose to shoot in. The style of the photograph is part of the idea.

6. When do you know you have a good picture?

When I was young, I never knew when to stop. I could never tell what I had. I was afraid I was going to miss something if I left. I remember working with the writer David Felton on a story about the Beach Boys and being surprised that at a certain point he just walked away. He said he had enough material, which seemed incomprehensible to me. As I became more experienced, I began to understand that someone who is being photographed can work for only so long and that you shouldn't belabor the situation.

7. How much direction do you give?

Much of the direction of the shoot takes place before the subject comes in. This is certainly the case with set-up portraits. By the time the subject arrives we've figured out what is possible for them to do. A lot of my work is post-decisive moment. It's studied. A kind of performance art. It would be nice to be more spontaneous, but circumstances don't always allow that.

8. How do you set people at ease and get them to do the things that they do in your pictures?

I never set anyone at ease. I always thought it was their problem. Setting people at ease is not part of what I do. The question assumes that one is looking for a "nice" picture, but a good portrait photographer is looking for something else. It might be a nice picture and it might not. I know, however, that I do set people at ease because I'm very direct. I'm there simply to take the picture and that's it.

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