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Annie Leibovitz: ‘The Women I Shoot Today Are More Confident Than Ever’

UBS AG Group Chief Executive Officer Sergio Ermotti And Annie Leibovitz Launch the WOMEN: New Portraits International ExhibitionUBS AG Group Chief Executive Officer Sergio Ermotti And Annie Leibovitz Launch the WOMEN: New Portraits International Exhibition
Annie Leibovitz, portrait photographer, poses with her photographs on display at the launch of WOMEN: New Portraits exhibition.Simon Dawson — Bloomberg via Getty Images

Annie Leibovitz has shot women ranging from coal miners and maids to Hillary Clinton, Serena Williams, and Gloria Steinem.

You can see many of those iconic images in “Women: New Portraits,” an exhibition commissioned by UBS. The show combines some of her older photographs from Women, a book she created with Susan Sontag in 1999, with a range of new work, all centering around female subjects.

A set of the new photographs will enter the UBS Art Collection, a global corporate collection of contemporary art that includes more than 30,000 works. Meanwhile, the exhibition is traveling to ten cities around the world over the course of 12 months and has recently arrived in San Francisco, where it’s on display at the Presidio’s Crissy Field.

“Women: New Portraits” was conceived to reflect the changing roles of women today. I sat down with Leibovitz at the opening of her show in San Francisco. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can hear the full interview on Inflection Point.

Fortune: What are some of the stories that you wanted to tell with this collection?

Annie Leibovitz: I started with the premise of the original project from 1999, a women’s book I did with Susan Sontag. It was extraordinary to have this opportunity to go back and add a new set of pictures to it. I don’t want to touch the original project; it stands on its own very well. It was modeled after August Sander—you know, all walks of life: coal miners, school teachers scientists, homeless women, prostitutes, women on death row, abused women.

So how do you add to it? Who from the last 17 years would you add to this group of women? I turned to Gloria Steinem. I turned to the editors of Vogue magazine. I asked everyone I knew who they thought about. There a lot of obvious choices, and then there were some very political women I hadn’t heard about on Gloria’s list. I knew I had a core group that I needed to get started with right away, and I thought, “As the year goes on I will add to it and it will continue to be that work in progress.”

Who’s the first woman that you photographed when refreshing your series?

It was actually Gloria Steinem. Also, Sally Mann, the photographer, who had just come out with a memoir about growing up in the South that was nominated for the National Book Award. Jane Goodall was on that initial list. Kara Walker, for sure. Alice Waters. That was kind of the hardcore beginning of it. A lot of women said yes right away, but then their schedules were extremely difficult.

It took some time to really get going, and things have come up along the way. I remember seeing Venus Williams lose to Serena in the U.S. Open in New York, and they hugged right at the end of the match. A photograph of them ran full-page in The New York Times the next day. I ripped it out and put it on the refrigerator for my girls to see. I asked the Williams sisters if I could photograph them again. I’d photographed them together when they were 16, and so I wanted to include them in the women’s project.

How much do you think has changed, generally, in the way we think about women and beauty and power?

I wanted to do people in other walks of life other than acting, but I was interested in Lupita [Nyong’o], who is a young actor who’s now the face of Lancôme. She is this strong, beautiful black woman. She is on Broadway now in a play written by women with all women actors. Misty Copeland in the world of dance. Forget even the aspect that she’s African American. Her kind of body, which is more athletic and stronger, wasn’t the idea of what a ballerina should look like.

That is physically a change from 1999, but I’m also seeing that when women sit for their portraits, they come in now with a better sense of themselves and more confidence—that in itself is different. I think we as a society were struggling with how we should look and how we should act and how we should come across, and now it’s completely accepted to just be yourself on some level.

In some ways, when you look at a photograph it’s inherently an objectification of the person in the photograph. You come up with your own opinion of what who you think they are, what they’re trying to say. And now, it seems like you’re saying it’s almost like the person in the photograph is now projecting, instead of being objectified.

You count on that as a portrait photographer—you want them to project. I work a lot better when the subjects can project themselves. Certainly my job is easier because I’m photographing what I see. I come from that school of photography of looking and observing, of letting something unfold in front of you. The nature of the portrait or the sitting is different. It’s sort of life sped up. It’s like you have to consolidate it. It’s more of a condensed life moment.

I’m really curious how you work with your subjects. Say you were going to photograph me for the cover of Vanity Fair. How would we work together?

Well, you probably wouldn’t want to be a cover of Vanity Fair.

OK, what cover do I want to be on? I’m not a musician, so I can’t do Rolling Stone.

The covers aren’t really photographs. They’re like advertising. They live in their own land. I don’t want to do a cover, I want to do the inside photographs. It’s the inside photographs that are the real photographs.

Now, to take a photograph of someone, first of all, you would do your homework. You would find out about that person, you would look at other photographs of them. If that person wasn’t photographed very much, you would try to spend some time with them. It might mean a couple of sessions. It might mean just hanging out a bit, which doesn’t happen that often anymore, but sometimes I use the actual session as a kind of getting-to-know-you session. If I have a choice, I always like the photograph to be environmental, to be where the person lives or works. I have a few things that I sort of go back to all the time: who the person relates to, if they have family, and what their favorite chair is. If I had six months, I could get to the soul of anybody. Sometimes, it’s a quick sketch, and sometimes you have to come back.

The Shonda Rhimes photo in “Women: New Portraits” might be a good example of that. Can you describe that photo and how that came to be?

I did ask about photographing her at home, with her children. Those were all turned down. Having worked with her before, I had asked her about taking her picture on her set and that was vetoed. The first time I worked with her, she told me she sits in her car outside the set and does her work out there, and that is the photograph I took. It wasn’t published, but I just love the idea that her car is the office. She sits in the back of the car and works on the computer—she writes anywhere.

This time she said I could shoot her on her set, and the question was, “Which set?”

After all was said and done I thought, “What is the most obvious set.” It’s the Oval Office because it has power written all over it. In that sitting, knowing she was the producer, the writer, the creator, the heart of Scandal, I didn’t want her being in a place on the set that made her feel like she was an actor. I did have her standing around the set, pretty much just kind of in the middle of the set and then I was repositioning a camera, and she went and sat down behind the desk, where the president would sit, and she put her feet up on the desk and was texting. I couldn’t ask her to do that, but that was a great moment, so I just said, “Stay put. That’s great. Let me just take this picture,” and it was like 5 minutes. It was done

You’ve got three daughters, right? Have they taken an interest in photography?

Not really. They are very busy with their own lives. They aren’t any more interested than other kids. The older one has an iPhone, and she does use it as a camera. I bought them cameras for trips, and they don’t dislike taking pictures. I’m hoping they find their own way and do what makes them happy. As a young girl, using photography really helped me discover who I was, but today we all have those iPhones, and on some level you don’t need to carry a camera anymore. The selfie thing is probably a little bit crazy, but on the other hand it’s kinda great for self-discovery. I think after a while people will be kind of tired of it and do something else. Right now, it can be entertaining, it can be silly, it can be something to do, it can be a memory, it can be souvenir—I think it’s an incredible time for the phone camera.

People use their phones if they’re in an awkward situation—you can just look down like you’re busy with something or pretend you’re taking a picture. But I wonder for you, having had camera in your hand for much of your life, whether you ever felt like that was kind of your license to be somewhere, or your own empowerment tool.

I don’t know if “empowering” is the right word, but it gave me permission to be somewhere. It let me do things I never would’ve done myself. I know it’s hard to believe I really was and still am kind of shy. I’m kind of socially awkward, and the camera does allow you to participate. It could also cut you off, too. In most cases, it brings you into a situation as long as you don’t become obsessed, which in order to be a real star photographer, you have to be obsessed.

Are you obsessed?

I love getting older because I’m not as obsessed as I used to be, but for sure when I was younger, when I would photograph a concert, I wouldn’t hear the music. I would be concentrating so hard on taking the photograph. I think that’s obsessed, yeah.

What’s the best advice that you’ve ever been given about capturing the essence of a subject?

On the 1972 Rolling Stone tour, my hero, my god, Robert Frank, was on that tour, and I got to stand near him. He saw me taking pictures, and he turned to me and he said, “You know, you can’t get every picture.” You worry about being able to get the picture, and whether it will be as good as the last picture you took. So this was kind of like a relief to know that I wasn’t going to get it all time.

I remember I was with David Felton, who is a writer at Rolling Stone. We were doing a story on The Beach Boys. He said to me, “Well, I have enough,”and I said, “How do you know when you have enough? What’s enough?” It didn’t make any sense to me at the time. You can always do better. But I think I work now towards having something that’s good enough. Is it going to change photography? You know, it’s not going to happen all the time. Is it going to be a great moment? Not going to happen all the time. Those things are few and far between. If you do this your whole lifetime, you do have a couple moments that had nothing to do with you, they just happened to be because you are there, and you feel like a medium.

Lauren Schiller is the host of Inflection Point, a public radio show and podcast featuring conversations with women who are changing the status quo. The above article is an edited and condensed version of the broadcast interview. Click here to listen to the full audio.