First Look: Annie Leibovitz At Work

UPDATE: Annie Leibovitz passed through Seattle on her book tour, much to the delight of a few Strobist readers...

First previewed here last August, Annie Leibovitz: At Work is finally wrapped in those little brown Amazon fold-boxes and hitting doorsteps everywhere.

I have just spent the afternoon with my copy, which I pre-ordered when it first became available. It is a departure from the previous picture books she has published, the main difference being much more back story to go along with the photos.

What to Expect

Originally, I expected to get a more nuts-and-bolts, gear-and-technique type book. But instead the she spends the time on her experiences surrounding approximately two dozen different sittings and projects.

Instead you are taken along with her on her shoots, almost as if she is sitting down after each one and talking with you about it over a cup of coffee. Much space is given to her approach, what she is thinking, problems to be solved, photographer-subject interaction and the like.

From the comments I get in the On Assignment posts, it is clear that many people put a premium on this type of information. From my perspective I have sometimes found that hard to understand. (Just shut up and tell us how to light it, Flash Boy...)

But having read through Leibovitz's book, I find her openness and honesty about the process to be far more valuable to me than the lighting stuff. The cover may show her inside of a typically Leibovitz lighting setup, but the book is not about lighting. It is more to get you inside her head.

If you are a fan of her work, you will find it very enjoyable -- and come away with a much better understanding of her motivations and how she works. If you are sick of her, this book will only make you more so.

Count me among the former.

The book comprises her entire career to date. She revisits the early days at Rolling Stone, the American Express ad campaign, Vanity Fair, etc. She spends time on those multi-panel "big pictures" that did for VF, too.

For those of you who are not near a Borders or some other big book store, I did a quick thumb through of the book simply to give an idea of the photos-to-text ratio. While not a picture book per se, it is very much a book about photography. And by that, I mean a look at everything that goes into Leibovitz's photography.

You'll remember the YouTube video (since pulled) of her session with The Queen. Having seen footage from that shoot, it is very interesting to hear her talk about it, too. She devotes ten pages to that shoot, and includes each of the photos approved released from it.

I was surprised to find that not one, but two of the Queen photos are composites. Also, I found it oddly gratifying to read how the whole thing seemed to be coming apart at the seams in Leibovitz's mind. Of course, she was still able to make four gorgeous historical portraits despite her internal panic.

That tells me much more than the shoots with her Hollywood pals who will do damn near anything for her. I expect that this is a book I will read a few times at different levels, trying to glean what information I can that will help me with my own portraiture.

She does spend a chapter on gear: Cameras, lighting, fans, music, etc. But that is not the focus if the book.

Which is fine. The lighting stuff is physics. A trained monkey can do that, my friend Jed Kirschbaum is fond of saying. (I would note that Jed shoots mostly available light, tho.)

What I am interested is learning more about the difference between the way I think and the way someone like Annie Leibovitz thinks. And for that, At Work foots the bill.

If you have gotten a copy already, sound off in the comments. More voices, the better. Didja like it? Didja not? Why? Why not?


Annie Leibovitz: At Work is available at and, soon, at bookstores everywhere.


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Blogger Mike said...

Yeah I got the book in the post a couple of weeks ago and really enjoyed it. My girlfriend (not interested in photography at all - a dancer) also loved the book and read it over a couple of nights. Plus it's packed well and smells GREAT.

November 18, 2008 6:19 PM  
Blogger budrowilson said...

I love technical details, but I also like knowing what drives a person's decisions associated with a shoot. Their motivation for everything, and the way they tackle different problems that arise. It looks like something I'd be interested in. Thanks for the review, Mr. Hobby.

November 18, 2008 6:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

do not waste your money i got mine today sooo not worth the dollars

November 18, 2008 7:47 PM  
Blogger D™ said...

Yeah David she's a great photographer so what? You're all over her for blogging ability. If Joe McNally can write a blog, what's her excuse?

You're one of these rare individuals who can do something very well and probably almost instinctively if you've been at it for a while. And yet you can then turn around, break it down and explain in a way that is understandable.

Inspiration and teaching are very different things, but you can do both.

November 18, 2008 7:58 PM  
Blogger Steve Thurow said...

Mine was waiting for me on my door step when I got home. Probably won't get to sleep at my normal time as i'll be tearing through this. Thanks for giving us the heads up about this earlier Dave.


November 18, 2008 8:32 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Just want to say how I love the Strobist site. I've watched the video of Annie and the Queen and couldn't imagine the pressure and stress she was under. After watching the video I wanted to learn more about Annie Leibovitz. The review on the book is probably right up my alley. I love the tech side of photography but I have a real interest in what drives the individual and what their thinking process is like. Maybe this is due to me being an amateur photographer.

November 18, 2008 8:44 PM  
Blogger michelle cunningham said...

mmm hmm... looks like i'm going shopping. thanks guys!

November 18, 2008 9:10 PM  
Blogger Michael T Regan said...

First off, as a staff shooter, I'm grateful to strobist for reminding me how to be creative on the run. I've since ditched the Hensel bag on more shoots than I previously would've due to the inspiration generated right here. This site is a landmark in education and I wish it was up and running when I was in photo school (it would've saved me A LOT of research time).
Regarding Annie, I finished the book last night. There's two lines line that really jumped out at me and both are worth sharing:

1. "As much as I love pictures that have been set up, and as important as those pictures are to me, I'd rather photograph something that occurs on its own"

2. "I've never been able to make strobe light look as beautiful as natural light"

Coming from the Queen of highly lit, stylized, set up portraits, these are powerful statements. I'd say that's a tall nod to the ways of Robert Frank, Gary Winogrand, Lee Friedlander and the documentary legends.

Maybe she's just waxing nostalgic for the early 70's Rolling Stone days...but it's a tall reminder that important work isn't just about the physics behind a photograph, but what that photograph means when art and science merge.

November 18, 2008 10:47 PM  
Blogger Jeff Grandon said...

Loved the flip-through video, this is exactly what I would do if I were in the bookstore trying to decide if I should buy it. Though I can't scan through the text, your review does the same thing. Novel idea for a video, thank you, David!

November 18, 2008 11:19 PM  
Blogger Lane said...

One of my favorite photo books is "Photojournalism - Mary Ellen Mark and Annie Leibovitz: A Woman's Perspective" which was published in the 70's at a very early stage in both women's careers. It's a constant source of inspiration, reference and dare I say, therapy for me.

Looking forward to getting Annie's book this week from Amazon.

November 19, 2008 3:07 AM  
Anonymous James Hill said...

I had mine on pre-order a couple months back with amazon, but I went and saw her exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London about 3 weeks ago, and too my surprise it was on sale and about 10% cheeper than amazon (with my NPG membership card) ... So I snapped it up along with the exhibition book and cancelled the amazon order.

I really like the book, I'm not an avid fan of her work, but I have lots of admiration for her skill and success, so any little tidbit of information that I could snuff out would be well worth it.

I think it's worth it.

November 19, 2008 5:18 AM  
Blogger paul said...

I,m half way the book already, and i like it, and does look great too.
Perfect xmas gift for myself !

November 19, 2008 6:34 AM  
Blogger Ryan said...

unfortunately, I left for Brazil on the same day that it arrived on my doorstep...Now I have to wait 3 more months to read my own copy...Thanks David.

November 19, 2008 7:10 AM  
Blogger chrisgraphics said...


That browsing video is really really helpful. Thank you.

I have been thinking for a while to get a copy of the book, too. But now I may have changed my mind.

Since the title says "at work", I was hoping to see more behind-the-scenes shots, even if without the technical info.

November 19, 2008 7:32 AM  
Blogger Paulo Rodrigues said...

I beat you to it by a couple of weeks. :)

Pretty much the same conclusions as you David, It was an enjoyable book but for the price I would have liked bigger prints.

When you're in London, if you get time, head down to Trafalgar Square and see the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, there's loads of good stuff on at the moment.

November 19, 2008 10:15 AM  
Blogger jimmyd said...

Much space is given to her approach, what she is thinking, problems to be solved, photographer-subject interaction and the like.

Which is why all that you do to educate is only half the battle for producing exemplary work. Perhaps less than half the battle.

Unfortunately, DIY photographer/subject interaction is something many struggle with. It 100% relies on DIYing but doesn't come with DIY technical instructions.

November 19, 2008 11:54 AM  
Blogger Karen said...

You're right on with your review. Got my copy on Monday. I was at first flip through the book disappointed - expecting more behind the scene images showing lighting setup, etc. But then after actually started to "read" was truly amazed.

November 19, 2008 12:17 PM  
Blogger Mat Hayward said...

I've skimmed my copy and read bits and pieces of it so far (waiting for some free time to really dig into it). So far it appears to be a quick read with some interesting stories. I'm looking forward to reading it all.

I'm particularly excited as I get to meet tonight.

November 19, 2008 1:20 PM  
Blogger Mat Hayward said...

oops, I meant I get to meet her tonight.

November 19, 2008 1:21 PM  
Anonymous Narkibar said...

On the subject of Annie Leibovitz I just saw this about the Lavazza coffee calendar for 2009 quite interesting with some "The making of" video

November 19, 2008 3:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

OMG David Hobby...quiet for two minutes and two seconds..Respect..
:-)..I got the book as well and really enjoyed it..thanks DH.

November 19, 2008 5:54 PM  
Blogger Andrew Bangs said...

I got my pre-order in the mail this morning, and I got to see her lecture to a sold out crowd at Benaroya Hall in Seattle tonight.
It was really interesting to see her just dive right into her book and retell the stories in person.

November 20, 2008 1:09 AM  
Blogger ogalthorpe said...

i like the book so far. But this is FTW:

November 20, 2008 4:05 AM  
Blogger Erik said...

For me the "cat was out of the bag" when I saw Annie's previous videos. She works with a large staff of assistants (I counted 11 when she photographed the Queen of England). Each of whom are very talented in their own right, I am sure. Does she give credit to their contributions? Don't get me wrong, I am a fan of her work, and her early work shows her talent. In my opinion, her current work is so stylized and a departure from the work that made her notable to begin with, that I want to know who her stylist and lighting designers are!

November 20, 2008 8:44 AM  
Anonymous Tom said...

I spend a lot of time reading blogs, mags and books to learn from others. This is refreshing to say the least. It's an easy read a nice "Coffee" table book.
Now... Flash boy, tell us how to light it. :)

November 20, 2008 10:40 AM  
Blogger Chuck said...

I think it's interesting that you took a video of a scann through a book of videos. Talk about mixed media!

November 20, 2008 12:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For those of you still interested in some more exposure for the lady of the hour there is a very well made and interesting video out called Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens (2006)which was a pretty neat mixture of her career to date experiences and some glimpses into her personal life.

November 20, 2008 12:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For anyone haven't bought a copy or want for an extra copy. Strand Book Store at NYC Union Square has Annie Leibovitz signed copies for sale for $31. I got mine yesterday. Hope this helpful.


November 20, 2008 3:37 PM  
Anonymous Will said...

Live interview w/ Annie Liebovitz about the book on KUOW Seattle, Thurs. 11/20. Audio download is available from

November 21, 2008 3:28 AM  
Anonymous Brandon D. said...

Just skimmed through the book at a book store tonight, and I didn't want to put it down. It seemed to be full of great info. I really can't wait to buy it. I presume that it'll give me a better appreciation for her work.

November 23, 2008 10:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just have been to an exhibition from Annie Leibovitz, She is very inspiring.
Hugh O'Malley (

November 24, 2008 9:21 AM  
Blogger Lane said...

I'm about halfway through the book and while I'm enjoying it alot, I am a little disappointed that she doesn't go deeper in talking about how she works. I also wish she gave a more detailed history of how she got from taking classes at San Francisco Art Institute and shooting here and there to be touring with the Rolling Stones. She makes it sound so easy, like all she had to do was roll out of bed in the morning and point her camera at something. The book I mentioned in an earlier comment in this post talks about some of that, how she worked harder and cheaper than anyone else. And nagged the crap out of her editors! So I find the book a little lacking in inspiration, her voice is one of someone entitled.

November 25, 2008 1:32 AM  
Anonymous Paul Morse said...

I have some good stories from when Annie photographed the President and First Lady at the White House. It was always fascinating to see her lighting set up and how she handled her subjects. Keep up the great work on Strobist!

November 25, 2008 2:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting. Just a note for Jed: an untrained monkey could shoot available light.

December 01, 2008 3:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thank you! your post was quite helpful in my decision-making: is it worth the investment or not?

answer: 100% yes!

off to call the husband to grab a copy from chapters.

kat, toronto

December 27, 2008 6:26 PM  
Anonymous Rod Shoemaker said...

I have benefited from the flow of tech info on your blog for several months now. However, I am now particularly pleased today with your comments about Annie. It told me that you are not just interested in gear and the ability to use it, but more importantly interested in keeping your best gear - your brain - broadened and sharp . I think your comments will have me heading for the book store before it closes today. Thanks for the good review.

January 19, 2009 4:25 PM  
Blogger wen Chang said...

Nice review!!! I love this book as it re-ordered available on

January 20, 2009 2:37 PM  

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