Blast Radius

How Donald Trump almost spoiled Annie Leibovitz’s latest book

Acclaimed photographer shares candid moments from her career in Toronto visit

AT A LOSS: When Donald Trump won the election in 2016, it changed the direction of Annie Leibovitz’s new book. The acclaimed Vanity Fair photographer was on hand to sign copies of her book Annie Leibovitz: Portraits 2005-2016.

When a big name from the photography world comes to Toronto, I go out of my way to attend the event.

Victoria’s Secret photographer Russell James? Top drawer.

Friend of classic rockers Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, Terry O’Neill? Cheerio.

Guess Jeans giant Ellen von Unwerth? Wunderbar.

So, when I heard of Annie Leibovitz’s visit to Yorkville, at the Bay-Bloor Indigo, I knew I had to haul keister down to the shop. Now for those not versed in the photographic world, Leibovitz has been the visual intellect behind photos from Rolling StoneVanity Fair and Vogue.

Some of my favourite shots are her group shots of Hollywood icons — from the up-and-comers to the established echelon. Another of my favourites is her shot of Clint Eastwood in the driver’s seat of an old truck.

You can really see how Richard Avedon’s work filled her veins. His name came up multiple times as she shared her entrance into the industry with the 100-odd folks.

Leibovitz was on hand to sign copies of her latest book, Annie Leibovitz: Portraits 2005-2016, and it was great to hear her share her life from the previous book, A Photographer’s Life: 1990-2005, as well. Most of all she opened up about how the U.S. Electoral College, which gave Donald Trump the presidency, snatched her last page from her. Meaning if Hilary Clinton had won the election, Leibovitz would have snapped her at her desk in the Oval Office, and could only guess which Eleanor Roosevelt desk she would have picked.

She ruminated over this for a moment, letting it sink in, before moving on to a more intimate side of her craft.

I would have loved to pick up a copy of her book, and perhaps get it signed, but alas it was not to be. I did, however, manage to steal the last question of the day. I asked, “Do you find there isn’t enough attention to the female eye and the female photographer in the industry?”

Leibovitz shared her origin story as a painting major at the San Francisco Art Institute. She switched to photography because of the more communal nature of that art.

“I was working for a long time so I did have to address that,” she said. “On some level, when I was younger, I got away with more. They didn’t think I was going to take anything that mattered.

“It’s hard, but it’s hard for us all.”

Before my question, she admitted the ending for this book was also hard.

“After Hilary Clinton lost I didn’t think I could finish the book. Whatever I was shooting … just throw it in the book. Bruce Springsteen? Throw him in the book. Oprah Winfrey? Throw her in the book.”

There was laughter but clearly, Clinton’s loss seemed to erase part of the inspiration for Leibovitz. That was until artist Robert Smithson’s land art, the Spiral Jetty in Salt Lake City, emerged. And Leibovitz made her own pilgrimage out to see it.

“The ending is a big question mark to me,” she admitted, not realizing the geographical fiddlehead played its own tune and seemed to carry its own artistic question mark.

With one theme gone, the prevailing one surfaced just like Smithson’s art. The digital camera. All the content of her new book is completely done with a digital camera.

“It is photography, and certainly no less real than other photography,” she said. “I’ve never been a very technical photographer. I focus on the content.”

And from John Lennon to Scarlett Johansson to Susan Sontag and the Queen of England, the content is truly rich.

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