Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Original and Not Touched

Inside the Doll’s House, 2003

Earlier this month I mentioned an interview I’d read featuring Annie Leibovitz talking about her new book, “Pilgrimage.” I haven’t seen the book yet. But while walking yesterday morning I heard Leibovitz being interviewed on a podcast of the NPR program Talk of the Nation. It turns out she had another interesting thing to say.
Actually, she said two interesting things to say, the first of which is that while she may have a superb eye for visual art, Leibovitz admits to having a weak command of words. Also participating in the interview was historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who wrote the introduction to “Pilgrimage.” Kearns was her usual articulate self. But whenever Leibovitz would jump in to make a comment, her observations frequently ended quickly in a series of pauses, dangling adjectives and incomplete sentences.
The thing she said, though, that really caught my ear, though, was a comment about the cover photo of this new book. It’s a photograph taken right at the edge of Niagara Falls.
Leibovitz explained that she’d taken the picture during a visit to the falls with her young daughters. The girls were in a state of wonder at the sight of the powerful cataract. Leibovitz, too, found herself unexpectedly drawn to the euphoric power of the deep green water rushing by and over the falls. Here’s a picture of the cover of the German edition of the book.

 Pilgrimage, by Annie Leibovitz

It wasn’t her comments about the falls that caught me. Rather, what caught my attention was Leibovitz observing that one of the remarkable things about this cover photograph is that it is “original” and “not touched.” By which she means that this photograph was essentially “straight out of the camera.” 
Leibovitz is known for the careful lighting, styling and composition of her photographic portraits, and described how many are also the result of considerable post-production retouching. The photo on the cover of “Pilgrimage,” on the other hand, was subjected to little or no retouching. 
When you reach the point in your pursuit of photography that you make the investment in Photoshop or software programs there’s a very normal tendency to want to try out all the bells and whistles. So for a while all of your pictures look gimmicky, over produced and unnatural. Their defining characteristic is that the viewer notices the tricks and gimmicks before noticing anything else.
If you’re smart, you recognize the errors of your way and pull back on this manipulation until your photographs return to a more natural appearance. You want your work to be noticed, not diagnosed.
Just as a few weeks ago I was surprised by how genuinely amazed Annie Leibovitz was that she could make insightful “portraits” of people long deceased just by photographing their work spaces and personal items, I am again surprised, but also pleased, that she has chosen to feature a photograph so untouched on the cover of her latest book.


  1. I wish I could have heard that; I'll have to try to listen to a podcast or something since I was traveling and missed it. Love that photo up top here. I had to embiggen it before I laughed out loud.

  2. "You want your work to be noticed, not diagnosed." Nicely put observation.