I became aware of the work of Annie Leibovitz about five years ago when the editors of American Photographer published her portrait of Jimmy Carter on their cover. Quite frankly, I didn't think it was very good. It looked like what people in the photography business call an outtake. Here was a portrait of the President of the United States looking out from the cover of a widely circulated national magazine with an expression on his face that revealed he clearly wasn't ready for the picture to be taken. He appeared preoccupied, anxious, vulnerable.
I remember the accompanying article described this approach as the ''new photojournalism,'' a style that stripped people in the public eye of the veneer that they always place between themselves and their audience. This type of photography was to reveal the true character of such people.
I was delighted to see that there is no attempt in this book to exploit anyone's unpreparedness. Quite the contrary, it's obvious that Leibovitz works very hard to develop a rapport with her subjects before she starts shooting. There is humor and beauty here, as well as images that some may consider downright outrageous.
One of the first questions many ask when first leafing through the book is, ''How in the world does she get such famous people to do these things?'' On the cover is actress Meryl Streep oddly pulling at her clown-white covered face; top cover girl-model Lauren Hutton lies nude in Mississippi mud; Debra Winger is shown kissing a German shepherd in the middle of some New Mexico desert.
Fortunately at the end of the book is found a short conversation with Leibovitz, which reveals what we all really want to know - what it's like to work with some of these people.
Her first cover assignment for Rolling Stone was to photograph John Lennon, and, as anyone her age would readily admit, she was somewhat awe-struck. ''I wish there was a more elegant way to talk about this,'' she says in relating this experience, ''because it really meant so much to me at the time to be treated well by someone who was so famous, who stood out as a legend in my mind. He made me realize we were all people and we were all here on Earth, and it was the basis of how I was to approach everyone from then on.''
And so she seems to move well with the likes of the Rolling Stones, Dolly Parton, Johnny Carson, Woody Allen, William Hurt. She has become somewhat of a celebrity herself by creating these strikingly graphic images of today's authors , actors, poets, rock stars, and such. Technically these photographs are all superb; imaginatively they are sublime. The color in the pictures will make you wonder why photographers even bother working in black and white today.
Some of the most elegant photographs are the result of using both strobe and ambient light, blending the crispness of a well-defined subject with the pleasant colors of nature in the background. One such photograph is a side-lit Timothy Hutton standing atop a black horse on a Malibu beach at night. It is brilliant in its conception and execution. This is what sets Leibovitz apart from many photographers: She goes a step beyond what is necessary to create striking images of famous people. Instead of shooting Bette Midler with a rose in her hair, Leibovitz creates a bed of roses for Midler to lie in. Instead of shooting Christo at work on one of his draping sculptures, she turns him into one.
Comedian Steve Martin summed it up when he spoke with her about taking his picture: ''Annie, I've pushed myself in my movies and in my career; everything's gone further except the photographs of myself.'' Leibovitz says he was really interested in trying to take a new picture. So is she.