"AMERICAN MASTERS Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens" on PBS, January 3
Features Interviews with Mikhail Baryshnikov, Tina Brown, Graydon Carter, Rosanne Cash, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Whoopi Goldberg, Mick Jagger, Bette Midler, Demi Moore, Mark Morris, Yoko Ono, Keith Richards, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Patti Smith, Gloria Steinem, Jann Wenner, Anna Wintour, and family members
Press Release—It’s 1972, the year of Watergate, "The Godfather" and Exile on Main Street. On a suburban Maryland lawn, a young Anna-lou Leibovitz peers into her Nikon as members of her family scramble into place. As they pose, an ever-present Super 8 camera captures the scene. Although Leibovitz is a Rolling Stone magazine photographer, this event—her first turn as the official family photographer—is as important to her as any arena concert or movie shoot.
Flash forward 34 years to 2006. This time, the now-famous photographer is on the other side of the lens. And this time, her younger sister Barbara is pointing the camera, documenting the life and times of Annie Leibovitz for AMERICAN MASTERS. "Annie Leibovitz: Life Through A Lens" premieres Wednesday, January 3 at 9 p.m. (ET) on PBS (check local listings).
“I wasn’t one of those photographers that started when I was 12 and always wanted to be a photographer,” says Leibovitz, who now ranks alongside Richard Avedon, Margaret Bourke-White and Irving Penn. “It really was a much slower awareness. It all came from the same place of wanting to do art, wanting to do—something—to express yourself.”
The 90-minute film is the finale of the 20th anniversary season of AMERICAN MASTERS, a five-time winner of the Emmy Award for Outstanding Primetime Non-Fiction Series and a recent recipient of its seventh Peabody Award. "Annie Leibovitz" is directed by Barbara Leibovitz and is a co-production of Thirteen/WNET New York, Adirondack Pictures and Ranoah Productions Inc.
The film coincides with Leibovitz’s latest book, "A Photographer’s Life: 1990-2005," published in October by Random House. The book is comprised of more than 300 photographs, including Leibovitz’s personal pictures and her work as a professional photographer.
“Through the decades, Annie Leibovitz has chronicled our cultural history. Her museum-quality portraits transcend celebrity photography,” says Susan Lacy, creator and executive producer of AMERICAN MASTERS. “We go behind the scenes and on location with an artist who is as famous as her subjects, where we see first-hand the incredible passion she brings to every assignment. And we’re privileged to see a more personal dimension of Annie Leibovitz—the sister, the daughter and the mother of three.”
Given unrestricted access, director Barbara Leibovitz spent a year documenting Annie Leibovitz at home and at work. “As her sister, I feel a serious responsibility not only to tell her story, but to tell it honestly,” says Barbara Leibovitz, a writer, director and producer of award-winning documentaries. “It was a challenge, but I learned more about my sister than I ever imagined.”
Barbara and Annie Leibovitz spent years talking about collaborating on a film, but waited until both felt the time was right. In December 2004, Annie Leibovitz’s long time partner, writer and critic Susan Sontag, died of cancer. Six weeks later, her father died. As part of the grieving process, Leibovitz pored through and cried over decades of photographs. Last summer, when she began selecting images for her latest book, her sister began filming the creative process.
During numerous interviews—in the Manhattan studio, at home in upstate New York, rushing to airports, coming off exhaustive shoots—Leibovitz opens up about her artistic influences and work ethic as well as her frustrations. She also talks about the emotional impact of Sontag’s death and her struggle to maintain balance between career and motherhood.
Showing the photographer in action, Barbara Leibovitz documents numerous photo shoots, including those of Mikhail Baryshnikov, Robert Hughes, Melania Trump, Robert Downey Jr. and Keira Knightley for Vogue, and Vanity Fair’s “green issue” with Julia Roberts, George Clooney and Robert Kennedy Jr. The camera also shadows Leibovitz at the Palace of Versailles in France, where she shot Kirsten Dunst for a Vogue cover on Sofia Coppola’s new film, "Marie Antoinette."
Film shoots always follow days of intense preparation and research, which Barbara Leibovitz tracks in cinéma-vérité style. Interviews with stylists, art directors and editors such as Vogue’s Anna Wintour and Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter reveal Leibovitz as a force of nature, by turns tough, demanding and formidable, a perfectionist who’s logged millions of miles on assignment for the best-known magazines in the world.
“When Annie started at Rolling Stone, we had the time, the access, and most importantly, she had the love of the subject and the desire to do it,” says Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner, who began working with Leibovitz in 1970 after she walked into the magazine’s San Francisco offices with her portfolio. “She was with people who are close to her heart and who shared the same values, and came out of the same milieu. And stood for the same things. She achieves a level of understanding and depth for these people that has only been repeated, really, in her personal photography…these were the people close to her heart.”
In the film, Leibovitz displays a limitless capacity to stretch herself artistically through constant reinvention, proving exactly why, in 1991, she earned a one-person exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. At the time, she was one of only two living photographers to be so honored. The other photographer was Irving Penn. Her iconic photographs of celebrity faces and bodies—painted, nude, covered in mud and even white-face—are stories in themselves, revelations of the cultural zeitgeist. Most are instantly recognizable: a shirtless Arnold Schwarzenegger atop a white stallion, Pete Townshend and his bloody hand, sweat-soaked Rolling Stones, Whoopi Goldberg in a tub of milk, a naked John Lennon with a fully-clothed Yoko Ono.
By now, the story of the last Lennon photo is part of the Lennon lore. It was taken hours before the musician—the subject of one of Leibovitz’ early Rolling Stone covers—was shot and killed outside his home in New York City. In the film, Ono says, “She was one of us. She captured the spirit of us.”
The long friendships Leibovitz forged with numerous subjects led to incredibly intimate photographs. As a personal favor, she took Demi Moore’s wedding photos and first photographed her nude when she was pregnant with her first child. None of the photos were ever published. The famous Vanity Fair cover shot came three years later. Her photographs of women—from Meryl Streep and Lauren Hutton to Ann Richards and Hillary Clinton—are as much about female strength and individuality as they are about beauty and fame.
While she’s known worldwide for these celebrity photographs, Leibovitz moves just as easily from war zones and Olympic stadiums to rock arenas and ballet rehearsals. As versatile as she is curious, she’s covered both the O.J. Simpson trial and the World Cup.
Leibovitz, who was born in Connecticut, began taking photos in the late 1960s on a kibbutz in Israel and as a student at the San Francisco Art Institute. Before that, she hop scotched around the country from one military base to another with her parents and five siblings. Her father, Sam Leibovitz, was in the Air Force, which he rejoined at age 38 during economic hard times. Her mother, Marilyn, a dancer, graduated college at 19 and, at 20, was married and a mother. As her children grew, she put on dance shows at military bases, always taking pictures and shooting home movies, some of which are seen in "Annie Leibovitz." Her interview in the film provides texture to those early family years.
Ultimately, "Annie Leibovitz" is a portrait of a contemporary working photographer, ever looking to the future.
"AMERICAN MASTERS Annie Leibovitz: Life Through A Lens" is directed by Barbara Leibovitz and is a co-production of Thirteen/WNET New York, Adirondack Pictures and Ranoah Productions Inc. Susan Lacy is executive producer of AMERICAN MASTERS. Barry Schulman is director of cultural and arts programs for Thirteen/WNET New York.