Master Series: Working With Annie

An interview with frequent photo subject Mark Morris.

Editor's note: The Mark Morris Dance Group was formed in 1980. Morris has created more than 120 works for the company, which is now based in his dance center in Brooklyn, where there are studios and a school. He also choreographs ballets for other companies and directs operas.

You've worked with Annie a lot. When did it start?

In 1988, when I was choreographing "Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes" for American Ballet Theatre. Mikhail Baryshnikov was the director of the company, and Annie photographed us together in some dirty, filthy warehouse. The suit I was wearing was my first expensive piece of clothing. It was gorgeous-Issey Miyake.

I wasn't used to being photographed then, and I was behaving like I thought you should in a photograph. The rapport with Annie was pretty immediate, though. And pretty direct. That's when I learned that I could communicate with her. Which translated to other photographers. I realized that I knew what to do. I'm a stage person.

I remember that she made me smoke more than I wanted to.

Some people say that Annie intimidates people into doing things, either through the strength of her personality or because she's famous. Do you think she does?

No. But her reputation is intimidating to some people. Her famous-ivity. And the "iconic" pictures. John Lennon. Whoopi Goldberg. That naked fabulous speed skater, what's his name? Eric Heiden. I love those pictures so much. Or the famous unlikely people naked or seemingly naked or doing something radical, for them. You think, "If they could do it, I could do it. She showed her tits, I will too."

Annie always says, "Now tell me if you're uncomfortable with this." Whether she means it or not, it's a great device to get people to trust you. But you're the one being photographed, and ultimately, you're going to decide what you're going to do in the photograph. Come on. We weren't born yesterday. Especially if we're in show business. Give me a break.

I'll try a lot of things, although sometimes I'll just say no. That "Rousseau" shot, for instance (page 60). We had talked about the idea beforehand, and I said I had no problem with it. I don't mind being naked, but she wanted to take some pictures that showed my dick and I didn't want to. It was hot. I didn't want to look droopy. I wanted an androgynous look. A hermaphrodite or whatever. As I recall, I tucked my dick in on the spot. Spontaneously.

But then there was a nightmare shoot that we did at a swimming pool on Ninety-something Street in New York. I don't think those pictures ever appeared anywhere. Annie had her equipment set up about twelve feet down in the pool, in a viewing room with a window that was used for coaching divers or something. She said she wanted to see me under water. I thought that could be nice, except that I had a terrible cold and I could hardly breathe.

There was a platform in the pool, and somebody with a life-saving pole would push me into the water and then pull me up. I was naked except for a full-length, lightweight cotton kimono, and by the time I got far enough down to be in front of the window where Annie could shoot me, I was out of air. Then I'd try to get to the surface, and I'd panic because I had all this fabric on. I'm not that great a swimmer, and I was also bound and gagged. And sick. When I got out of the pool I was freezing. It was horrible.

They were communicating with walkie-talkies most of the time, but every so often Annie would come up all these stairs from the viewing room to talk to me. She made me go back in the water a lot. It was like dunking a witch: If they drowned, they were innocent. If they survived, you killed them. We tried it over and over again, and then I said, "I just can't do this."

Anyway, that's an example of saying, "Oh, sure, I'll do that," and then you realize you're going to die. Most of the work you've done with Annie hasn't been life-threatening. And there's certainly a great deal of it. The dance photographs she's taken of you and your company may be the most extensive body of work she's made on a single subject.

I'm probably responsible for her starting to take dance photographs. In 1989 she photographed me when I was thinking about working on Dido and Aeneas. That was a fabulous session. She wanted the full sort of onnagata makeup. I didn't think it was enough. I thought it should have been more. But I ended up really liking Annie's pictures. I look like an old whore. There's a great one where I'm wearing just a piece of fabric, and the fan is blowing it. I was improvising on the subject of Dido. I had just decided to dance both roles: Dido and the Sorceress.

My greatest hero, in terms of a dance photographer, is George Platt Lynes. Those, to me, are the best dance pictures ever. They're so fake and so set up and so gorgeous. And Arnold Genthe. I love his pictures [Anna Pavlova, Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis]. They have that beautiful black-and-white flesh-tone thing that is so strange and of the period.

I looked at all these pictures with Annie in 1990, when she came down to the White Oak Plantation in northern Florida where Misha [Baryshnikov] and I were rehearsing a new dance company. I remember talking about them with her. She loved a lot of the same things I did. And I think I could explain to her-not with words-what works in a photograph. Turning, for instance, doesn't work. People always try to photograph a fouetté, but it can't be done. You can't photograph it, because it's a sequence. There are too many bits missing on film.

The pictures I love express the intention of dance. It looks like something is about to happen. It's never mid-action. The photographs where the dancer is in the air, for instance, have no tension. You always miss the apex. Speed exists only in relation to something else. It's not just about having a full-figure shot, like Fred Astaire insisted on. For instance, in The Flintstones, when a figure is traveling, it's rock, rock, tree, rock, rock, tree, to show that it's moving. That's all you need. And that's why dance photography doesn't work a lot of the time and why those super-static shots of George Platt Lynes work so great. It's the framing and the contrapposto. The candor, the snapshot aspect, isn't important. That's one reason I like Annie's work. It's formal. Decided.

Annie has said many times that the White Oak sessions were very important to her. That spending so much time with the dancers made many of the photographs possible.

White Oak was valuable. She learned a lot. And we became friends. She gave us all cameras and everybody became a brilliant photographer for a few weeks. It was a wonderful period.

There are some fabulous, dramatic pictures in the White Oak book. I'm thinking of one of them where we're rehearsing and Linda Dowdell-the musical director-is playing the piano. It's a picture of sort of nothing. And it's actually candid. It's what was going on. It's not what I'm doing in it that's important. It's within what I'm doing.

Annie was sitting there, snapping. That I let her in the room is already something. It was a very small studio.

Some of the photographs of the women dancers at White Oak were the basis for that series of nudes she did for the Pirelli Calendar.

Yes. I love the picture in the calendar of June Omura's legs. I like the nicks and the hairs. It's very painterly. There's an unbelievable sort of Titian ghastly blue-green color in all of the nudes. But they don't look cadaverous.

Of course the photographs we've been talking about are not what most people think of when they think of Annie's work.

Everyone has seen many, many pictures by Annie Leibovitz, whether they know it or not. It's part of the culture. Like the Love stamp. People know the image even if they don't remember that it was made by Robert Indiana. And because Annie does make those famous images, and shoots glamorous people, somehow she's not supposed to be able to photograph poor people or war or art.

But I like a lot of her more "commercial" work too. That picture of Ella Fitzgerald, for instance, was taken for an American Express ad, but it's also a picture of a darling black lady in a church hat. I love it. It's how she leans forward. It's the suit. It's the color. It's the gardenias or camellias or whatever they are in the background. It's the whole thing. The way she tapers, because she's so eccentric and old. The picture of George Bush in the White House is also great. It's like the scary Hapsburgs or something. I like those strange, cold photographs. The Trumps. The wife pregnant and naked on the steps to the plane. I don't want to marry them. But I really like the pictures.

The most terrifying pictures I've ever seen in my life are the fairy- tale spreads she made for Disney. The first one that appeared, with Cinderella on the stairs, kept me awake for nights. It was shocking. But I salute the weirdness of those pictures. I don't know how she did it. They're like zombie pictures. They impressed me enormously. I know it's because of the new digital cameras. But they're like Odilon Redon or something in their symbolist perversity.

Well, your take on the Disney photographs aside, which seems rather personal, would you agree that Annie's pictures pretty much always work, although one doesn't know exactly why?

They work even if the subject isn't famous anymore. It's like George Platt Lynes's portraits. Sometimes you don't recognize the person, but it's a gorgeous picture. You don't have to know.

ADVERTISEMENT