“Fashion wasn’t anything I wanted to be involved with,” she says. Yet the visually arresting images in “Wonderland,” her new book and collection, may be her strongest work.
Annie Leibovitz would like to make one thing clear upfront: She is not a fashion photographer. Given that her new book, “Wonderland” (Phaidon) is an anthology of fashion images shot mainly for Vogue, that’s curious.
But since the book, which arrives on Nov. 17, was built on Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” perhaps it’s not so curious after all. As Alice confronts a cast of bewildering characters, she asks, “Who in the world am I?” Leibovitz, through fashion, poses the same question.
“I’ve grown doing work in this genre,” she said, “but it didn’t go along with my perception about myself and my work. I come from a place where I want things to really matter.”
“Ambivalence and irony are in the book,” she told me later.
As a student at the San Francisco Art Institute, Leibovitz was inspired by the gritty, spontaneous photography of Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Though she admired the fashion work of Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton and Irving Penn, she had no desire to emulate them. “I thought fashion was silly,” she said.
We met at Studio 525 in Chelsea, where Hauser & Wirth was holding a five-day “Wonderland” pop-up show during Fashion Week in September. (The Southampton outpost of the gallery will be showing some of the same photographs from Nov. 6 through Dec. 23.)
Four gigantic screens projected a selection of Leibovitz’s work, from a pregnant Melania Trump in a gold lamé bikini, to Lady Gaga in Valentino haute couture. Leibovitz, who is 72, was moving gingerly on an aching hip that badly needs replacement surgery, pushing herself the way she did two months earlier when she shot puffers, parkas and jackets near an active volcano in Iceland.
She was dressed in her typical uniform of black pants and matching shirt. That morning she’d asked one of her teenage daughters if she should wear a 20-year-old tattered blue shirt but was promptly told, “Wear the black one.”
“I’m just a creature of comfort,” she said. “I don’t imagine anyone is looking at me.”
Leibovitz is one of the top portrait photographers in the world, but I’ve long been a fan of her fashion photography — in many ways, I think it’s her strongest work. For most people, “Wonderland” will be their first exposure to Leibovitz’s talent in this area.
The 341 images in the book bear the hallmarks of the Leibovitz style — masterly use of color, theatrical staging, artful interplay between artificial and natural light — but the best of them live up to the book’s title. They are enchanting, wrapped in a visual narrative that showcases her gifts as a powerful storyteller.
“When one typically does a fashion shoot the goal is to illustrate the clothes,” explained Phyllis Posnick, Vogue’s contributing editor and a frequent Leibovitz collaborator. “Annie ‘dresses’ the picture.”
When I complimented Leibovitz on the book, she replied, “I’ll believe that as far as I can throw you. I’ve been around the block too long.”
Fifty years, in fact, starting as a photojournalist at Rolling Stone. She captured some of the most defining moments of the era, from President Nixon’s ignoble exit from the White House, to a naked John Lennon curled up in a fetal position around Yoko Ono. At Vanity Fair, she became known for her quirky, conceptual portraits of boldface names, including a nude, seven-months pregnant Demi Moore.
Then, in 1993, the writer Susan Sontag, Leibovitz’s companion, encouraged her to deepen her work by documenting the conflict in Sarajevo. But in 1998, Vogue’s editor in chief, Anna Wintour, now Condé Nast’s global editorial director, approached her about working for the magazine. A year later, she was sent to Paris during the couture shows to shoot a photo essay with its fashion editor, Grace Coddington. The story featured Kate Moss and Sean Combs, then known as Puff Daddy.
Leibovitz, who had never attended a fashion show before, was “in awe,” she said of the artistry on display. “It was like performance art.” The experience gave her a greater appreciation of fashion. “But I could never be a bona fide fashion photographer,” she added, explaining that she thinks of herself as a “conceptual artist using photography.”
James Danziger, whose gallery represented Leibovitz for over a decade, was the first to show her fashion images in 2006. “It’s likely that historically these images, which are great fashion photographs, will best stand the test of time,” he said. “This is the way it is in photography. Most celebrities are forgotten but fashion lasts.”
Leibovitz continued at Vogue for the next 23 years, creating a substantial body of work but thought it was “too soft” for a book. Then Covid-19 happened, and she found herself quarantined with her three daughters at her 200-acre farm in Rhinebeck, N. Y. She’s owned the property for 25 years; it’s where her large family gathers — she’s one of six children — and where Sontag often used to write.
In lockdown with her daughters for nearly a year, she was grateful for the time together. Two of her most fanciful photo essays in the book, “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Wizard of Oz,” were shot when her daughters were young — the oldest is now 20, the twins 16. “At the time I was reading fairy tales to them, so I was really living in that world,” she said.
The book also reawakened memories of Sontag. Leibovitz reminisced about the time Sontag read “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” to her. “We had blankets under a tree,” she said. “It was such a beautiful day, and Susan had such a wonderful voice.”
Leibovitz shot the “Alice” pictures with Coddington in 2003, during Condé Nast’s free-spending days, when no one blinked an eye about sending a crew of 30 to 40 people to a chateau in northern France. “When you look at each picture and how much time it took, it’s really mind-boggling,” Coddington said.
The photographs were based on John Tenniel’s original illustrations in the Carroll book, including one of Alice squeezed inside the White Rabbit’s house. The set designer produced a replica, scaling it to the model Natalia Vodianova’s proportions. “The house was really incredible, with a little table and chairs,” Coddington said. “But Annie thought the windows were wrong, so the designer had to rebuild the whole thing.”
Fashion designers were cast as characters in the book, among them John Galliano as the Queen of Hearts, Tom Ford as the White Rabbit and Marc Jacobs as the Caterpillar. Karl Lagerfeld, who had wanted to be the White Rabbit, appeared as himself.
“I’ve always loved the way Annie brings a sense of narrative or storytelling to her fashion images,” Wintour wrote in an email. “She has an eye for character, conflict, romance, drama — you always feel something interesting is happening, or about to happen, or has just happened.”
In another fashion essay Leibovitz offers a hilarious parody of famous couture shoots of the past. In 1963, decades before Photoshop, Melvin Sokolsky took models out of the studio and shot them in a plexiglass bubble over different parts of Paris. Leibovitz placed Ben Stiller, reprising his “Zoolander” role, inside a duplicate bubble and dangled it from a crane over the Seine. Karen Mulligan, Leibovitz’s longtime studio manager, recalled having to reassure Stiller’s worried publicist that if he fell in the river, scuba divers were on standby.
A passionate researcher who loves history, Leibovitz is drawn to the narrative essays because they give her something to focus on besides clothes. In 2007, she traveled to Spain for a story based loosely on Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.” Leibovitz had planned to shoot Penélope Cruz and Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez, the great-grandson of the famous matador who’d inspired the character of the bullfighter in the Hemingway novel.
“The day before the shoot we heard that Cayetano had been gored by a bull and was heading to the hospital,” Mulligan recalled. “Then he suddenly showed up. He’d bandaged his own leg. We had to get him into those tight matador pants and blood kept seeping through.”
Like Ordóñez, Leibovitz seems to thrive on stress. “She tortures herself and everybody else,” Coddington said. “But she’s unique, and I admire the effort she puts into each picture.” Others who’ve worked with her say that her relentless perfectionism can lead to angry outbursts, but agree that she’s less reactive now.
“I was ruthless in getting the photograph,” Leibovitz admitted. “I haven’t had the best behavior.”
“Working with Annie isn’t for the faint of heart,” said Mary Howard, her set designer of 30 years, adding, “Annie never wants to have regrets.”
She also doesn’t want to lose control over an interview. We sat opposite each other at a long table that was piled with research material — for me and on me. The latter was encased in see-through plastic and, according to Leibovitz, contained an email in which an unnamed person had written “some not very nice things.” I was tempted to ask, “Like what?” and then found myself glancing over to see if I could read it.
Leibovitz kept her notes on her left. I kept my notes on my right. We were like two lawyers squaring off before a jury composed of giant digital celebrities surrounding us in the gallery. “I don’t know if I have the ability to talk about the work while it’s flashing like this,” she said.
But talk she did — right through many of my questions. It was the first interview she’d done about the book and admitted she was nervous.
Instead she discussed all the great work being done in photojournalism, and how she doesn’t understand why every form of photography isn’t embraced. “Isn’t it?” I asked. She replied, “Well, if something’s not real enough….” Earlier when I’d asked her to define the meaning of the word “wonderland,” she said, “It’s the opposite of real — unreal.” As in fashion.
“Maybe it’s the friction that makes the work so good,” I suggested.
She paused. “Possibly.”
Leibovitz was more comfortable discussing the book’s portraits. In 2007, she received the first of three commissions from the royal household to photograph Queen Elizabeth II, who was annoyed that she’d had to wear the full regalia of the ancient Order of the Garter.
Leibovitz thought the queen’s tiara didn’t look right with the ornate robe, and in a BBC documentary, she’s heard saying, “Could we try without the crown? It will look better, less dressy.” The queen says, “Less dressy? What do you think this is?” But she ultimately removed the tiara.
The pictures of Caitlyn Jenner for Vanity Fair represent fashion at its most transformative. The former Olympic decathlon gold medalist sported a number of outfits, including a gold corset and a black Zac Posen dress. “We weren’t trying to do journalism,” she explained. “It was a construction, an acquired look. We were there to support her as she became a woman.”
When working for Vogue Leibovitz has to remind herself that even portraits need a fashion element. “I try to downplay it as much as I can,” she explained. “I’m totally on the subject’s side. Sometimes Vogue will help with the clothing, but Michelle Obama was adamant about wearing her own. ”
When Leibovitz went to photograph Senator Tammy Duckworth, the senator had already selected her outfit: a St. John Knits suit that she’d purchased on eBay. “She explained that she got all her suits off eBay,” Leibovitz said. “I told her, “C’mon, let’s do it. I love that I get to have those little moments.”
Leibovitz had trouble finding the perfect ending for the book, finally selecting a photograph from Alexander McQueen’s last collection in 2010. The brilliant 40-year-old designer committed suicide that year on the first day of New York Fashion Week. “McQueen’s collection had been shipped to New York for Grace and me to shoot,” she recalled. “We took it into a large building in Brooklyn, and as we lifted the pieces out, we thought, Let’s leave them in the shipping boxes.”
Throughout the day, as Coddington and Leibovitz worked in silence, the light moved slowly across the room. Finally, it cast a beatific glow on the model standing in the wooden crate. Dressed in a coat tailored from lacquered gold feathers, she’s like a Renaissance archangel fearsome in her gilded glory.
Leibovitz, the un-fashion photographer, captured the perfect fashion moment.
Patricia Morrisroe is the author of “Mapplethorpe: A Biography” and “The Woman in the Moonlight,” a novel.