For Annie Leibovitz, Photographing Artists Never Gets Old

Inside the photographer’s first museum commission, unveiled this month at Crystal Bridges in Arkansas.

by Stephanie Sporn

Annie Leibovitz, "Faith Ringgold and Michele Wallace." Courtesy of the artist Annie Leibovitz.

When thinking of any celebrity or global figure who’s made headlines over the last 50 years, chances are they’ve been immortalized in Annie Leibovitz’s captivating images. So what happens when you give one of the world’s most venerated portrait photographers carte blanche? It’s a question that the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art sought to answer in its latest exhibition, “Annie Leibovitz at Work,” the artist’s first major museum show in a decade. Open September 16 through January 29, 2024, the exhibition features more than 150 photographs, including Leibovitz’s iconic images for Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, and Vogue (think a nude, pregnant Demi Moore; Whoopi Goldberg in a tub of milk; and John Lennon and Yoko Ono embracing), as well as a set of new works that mark the photographer’s first-ever museum commission.

The idea for a collaboration with the Bentonville, Arkansas institution developed two years ago, when Walmart heiress, philanthropist, and arts patron Alice Walton, who founded Crystal Bridges, commissioned Leibovitz to take her portrait. “Annie wanted to learn what was important to me, what is meaningful in my surroundings, and I could see her artistry in action to ensure that her images reflect the personality of the people she’s photographing,” Walton tells W of her “instant kinship” with Leibovitz—whom she calls “one of the most important artists of our time.”

Annie Leibovitz, Self Portrait, 2017. Photographed in Brooklyn, New York.

Photo courtesy of the artist © Annie Leibovitz

Because Leibovitz’s editorial assignments are largely driven by news pegs—the star of an upcoming film, for example—the photographer enjoyed free rein to shoot whomever personally inspired her. This resulted in a diverse list of leaders in their respective fields, ranging from Artemis II astronauts to Leibovitz’s own rabbi. While other sitters include Lizzo, WNBA star Brittney Griner, and fashion power couple Andrew Bolton and Thom Browne, one of the most prevalent themes of the exhibition is female artists.

“I have a real thing for photographing artists in general,” says Leibovitz, who notes her older sister, Susan Leibovitz Steinman, is an artist (not to mention, prior to photography, Annie herself studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute). A self-proclaimed “book person”—as evidenced by a room devoted to tomes about her œuvre, as well as other influential photographers, in the exhibition—Leibovitz adds she was “enamored with [longtime Vogue editor] Alexander Liberman’s book on artists at work. So I set about to do work like that.”

Louise Bourgeois, Jasper Johns, Bruce Nauman, John Currin and Rachel Feinstein are among the countless artists Leibovitz has photographed in her nearly four-decade career. As for her decision to focus on women artists for this new commission, the photographer feels she has a “responsibility” to amplify their talent: “They’re great, and they don’t get enough attention.” Images showcase painter Amy Sherald, barefoot and clad in a green gown, in her childhood home in Columbus, Georgia; Mickalene Thomas climbing over stacks of papers in her Brooklyn studio, Faith Ringgold with her daughter, feminist author Michele Wallace; and two Guerrilla Girls founders, in gorilla masks, of course.

In certain instances, Leibovitz opted to revisit artists she photographed previously. In 2022, she shot Simone Leigh, who represented the United States at the 2022 Venice Biennale, in one of her signature raffia skirt sculptures. “I always wanted to photograph her hands in the clay,” says Leibovitz, who did just that for the Crystal Bridges commission. The photographer also captured a pensive Cindy Sherman lying in the grass.

While all of the newly commissioned work is presented via high-definition screens in the exhibition, one of the standout printed works on view is a black and white “group” portrait featuring Sherman from 1992. “I was very nervous about photographing her because I admired her so much,” Leibovitz told me during an impromptu exhibition tour at The Party, Crystal Bridges’s annual gala, on September 14. When the photographer arrived at Sherman’s New York apartment, the artist requested to be “hidden” in Leibovitz’s portrait of her: “So I said, let’s do 10 Cindy Shermans.” Leibovitz worked with a casting director to source lookalikes. Many years later, while on a shoot with Claire Danes, Leibovitz introduced herself to the actress. “She said, ‘Oh, I met you when you did the Cindy Sherman photo, but I got cut out—I was on the end,’” Leibovitz recalls.

Annie Leibovitz, Simone Leigh.

Courtesy of the artist Annie Leibovitz

Hanging in close proximity to Sherman’s 1992 portrait is an iconic image of Keith Haring, whom Leibovitz had asked to paint his body and the living room-inspired set black and white. “After the shoot he said he wanted to go out, so we drove downtown,” Leibovitz says. “It was 1986. No one cared at all if there was a naked man running around Times Square.” A bare Jeff Koons can also be spotted in the exhibition’s screens of rotating images, which additionally feature photographs from Leibovitz’s chilling “Pilgrimage” series, in which she visited the former homes of important figures, such as Georgia O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch.

As for her personal trove of fine art, Leibovitz has retained a “small but sweet” collection of photography by the likes of Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lynn Davis, and Hiroshi Sugimoto. “I think one of the reasons I had children was because I was afraid I was going to become an antiques dealer or something like that,” she jokes. Instead, Leibovitz guides her passion for art and artists into her photographs—perhaps the highest form of praise any painter or sculptor could ask for.