Annie Leibovitz and the Queen

Here’s a fascinating video of Annie Leibovitz photographing the Queen from a BBC series entitled Monarchy: The Royal Family At Work (here). What I find interesting in photo shoot videos is not the 11 assistants or the lighting setup but watching the photographer interact with the subject. When assigning portraits of celebrities or famous people one of the biggest considerations besides “can they make a stunning portrait in 10 minutes” is “can they get the subject to do something interesting.”

I see pictures of some famous people and they always look the same and the pictures are always boring but the reality is that some subjects are really difficult to work with and unwilling to accommodate the photographer. They treat photoshoots like torture. The subjects can also be terribly guarded and afraid that we’re trying to take something unflattering or out of character and so they only allow certain emotions, clothing, backgrounds and props in the photograph.

The decision is usually between 3 basic types of celebrity photographers. “Named” photographers are great because the subjects and publicists will respect the name and body of work and grant more leeway with the subject because of their reputation within Hollywood. The disadvantage is that it’s hard to take the famous photographer out of the picture and so the subject sort of shares the frame with the photographer. Studio/Publicist friendly photographers have good working relationships with the decision makers and this can make the planning and logistics easy because they’re all on the same page from the start. Working with one of these photographers can guarantee several hours of time with the subject which means lots of setups. The downside is that these photographers need to maintain their relationship with the publicists and they won’t do anything that might piss them off. Tenacious photographers get ideas in their head they won’t let go of and are willing to push the subject to achieve the picture they want. The only problem can be that your 10 min. shoot could turn into a 1 min. shoot if everyone gets upset.

Annie really shows her tenacity in this video when she immediately tries to get the Queen to remove her crown after deciding it doesn’t look good in the first shot and not giving up on an original request request to shoot the Queen on horseback inside the state apartments. She brings it up at the end of the shoot as the picture she’d really like to take, laying the groundwork for next time.

There Are 52 Comments On This Article.

  1. Annie’s a tenacious business-person with a bottomless supply of very talented assistants, stylists and technicians.

    It’s been many years since I’ve had any artistic respect for her though…

    Too bad the Queen wouldn’t consider sitting for an Andrew Hetherington portrait! (or would she……)

  2. This video is so great! Thanks so much for sharing such a cool find. I think what is most interesting about this was the way Annie maintained her own strong presence in light of the Queen’s–creatively speaking. Often I think it’s possible to allow the subject (especially when it’s a celebrity) to run the show in every aspect other than the technical setup of a shoot. That didn’t happen and I think it’s what helps sets apart certain photographers from others in the world of the famous. Her request to remove the crown and her several setups were both examples of how she was appropriately ambitious in her approach. Her comment following the shoot about the queen’s feisty attitude was complimentary and full of respect, she wasn’t the slightest bit threatened or annoyed by it, which really says a lot.
    I don’t care if she’s uber-famous, I think Annie and her photos rock!

  3. In my opinion, Annie is one of those talents that younger photographers have to go through to find their own voice. Kind of like a young solo blues guitar player who all have to learn BB King and Eric Clapton before finding their way; a young photographer who doesn’t know and respect Annie’s work is missing something.

    Annie Leibovitz was the right choice to photograph the Queen in this situation; without question, the right choice.

  4. It takes balls not to be intimidated in situations like that and Annie sure does have them. It is all too easy to become like a frozen animal in the lights and end up mindlessly clicking the shuttter without ever really taking hold of the reins. Maximum respec’!

  5. It’s curious, why did she shoot it with the Mark 2 as opposed to something of higher quality like a p45 or such.??

    thoughts?

  6. it’s funny, this was posted on the strobist blog a while back and everyone on there was saying how rude it was for annie to ask the queen to take her crown off and going on about how they could have done what she did and there was nothing special about the shots…yada yada. it’s interesting to see the difference in perspective of amatuer hobbyist vs professional photogs here. and I think it shows a lot of them don’t really understand what goes into a shoot of this caliber.

    @7: watch again and I think you’ll see an asst carrying an h1 around in there. not a 100% sure b/c I didn’t take the time to watch it again as I saw this a while back. There’s some behind the scenes stuff of the recent disney campaign she just shot and it’s the same thing…she’s swapping back and forth between a 1Ds and h1 w/ a digi back.

    • @Bruce DeBoer, yeah but the contrast queen vs demi is much bigger….also if u shoot nudes u don;t get to shoot the Queen… so says the protocol…something people in Uk go by

  7. Terence Patrick

    @9 Brady:
    I thought the same thing about the comments on the Strobist blog. It’s too easy to tear someone like Annie down when one is merely observing through a YouTube clip, never having been commissioned to shoot anything on such a grand scale.

    I agree with Bruce’s comments about Annie being a standard that newer photographers should attempt to learn from. She makes her work look effortless, yet I’m sure many can attest that her level of preparedness and on-set managerial skills are out of this world. She has my utmost respect and admiration.

  8. yes APE is behind on discovering this… might be because he was actually working at an office with deadlines when it first came around… not like us photographers, sitting here checking the blogs and — oh, it’s the phone! — damn, telemarketer — will i ever work again?

    annie shoulda had her daughter curtsie or something, kind of rude in an american way to be so familiar as she introduced her… it was the queen who chose her… how many hours of photoshop putting those final shots together?

    way what you will about annie, she works and works and works, and comes away with excellent stuff most of the time. in a league of her own.

  9. This video reminds me that at no matter what level, portrait photography is:

    90% psychology
    5% patience
    4% technical prowess
    1% chewable Tums

  10. Yeah, old video but great for illustrating the point of working with famous people in portrait photography. Who’s got it in them to ask the Queen to take off her crown? I don’t even think it’s ego. Some people just aren’t afraid to ask.

    If you’ve never been on-set in one of these situations you have no idea how hard it is. Many photographers wouldn’t want to risk the subject walking out and yes, subjects do walk out of photoshoots.

  11. On second look I do see the H1/H2′s. I just never see her shooting with them, and I think that threw me off.

    The P30 is a fast back.

    Also, I was wondering what do 11 assistants do?

    I can visualize about 6 assistants, but was wondering what would be the tasks for each of the 11.

  12. scott Rex Ely

    One of my favorite stories was from a Al McGuire being interviewed, I think it was 20 questions kinda thing in Playboy years ago, and he was asked who he’d want on the foul line with a couple of seconds to go and behind by one point, a street kid or a Rhode’s scholar and he said unequivocally a street kid. The Rhode’s scholar would be able to analyze the situation and recognize the pressure and the ramifications of choking and would proceed to do so. I think it’s a bit of ego, and more street smarts in Annie case. I’m sure she’s immune to that uber level of celebrity and the cryptonite kind of power can it wield.

  13. I remember this story from last year – actually because two people at the BBC where fired for the then still unbroadcast program (the first editing suggested that the queen had left the room in anger after Annies question of removing the crown)
    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/06/arts/television/06arts-BBCEXECUTIVE_BRF.html

    I guess everybody would have brought lots of assitents and equipment but what actually struck me was that she brought her daughter too. Prob was great for the girl but I would assume that there was some idea going on that it could also help her to connect better with the queen.

    For the communication/interaction during the shot: Is this really a good example? Its admittedly difficult to judge from a short sequence but what I see are two people and two worlds rather not connecting: The world of the queen for whom the crown is not a dress but a symbol with deep meaning and the world of fashion and style of Leibovitz when she uses words like “hair and make up” and “dressy” to trick the queen into removing the crown.

    I guess you can give her credit for trying but did she really put herself into the head of the queen and think what the crown means to her?

    Good reaction from the queen though. In articles it was always mentioned that she snaps back but I found that she laughs it of too. Might have been the communication skills of the queen which saved the day.

  14. @16 – APE – I couldn’t agree more. Part of the importance of hiring someone with Annie’s clout is that celebs know that she – in most cases – is as big as they are. If AL asks you to take off your crown there must be a good reason. If Bruce asks you – he’s just being a d**k.

    11 assistants: it’s called Vertical Scheduling in corporate circles. Basically it means that AL didn’t have to think about anything but the Queen and when she said Jump, it was done in seconds not minutes. Speed, efficiency and the all important show of the pony.

  15. I was hired by the british embassy to photograph the queen for an afternoon in 1983 during a previous visit to the US and spent a couple of hours following her around. so this was very interesting to watch. I found ER to be very business-like, but she’s obviously a nice person and not without a sense of humor either. and she knows photography too. annie, understandably, seemed a tiny bit nervous starting out but handled it, as you would expect, with cool professionalism. and the pictures are terrific. talk about grace under pressure.

  16. i don’t understand those that are surprised by the professionalism of someone who has made a very long career of photographing the famous. i would say it is a good example of what to do in this situation, but not amazing or surprising.
    i will also admit that i don’t really care for her photos and don’t understand why young photographers are to look up to her as a guide. if you’re fashioning a career of celebrity photography, then sure. otherwise, i have never found her that photos inspiring.

  17. She has an amazing body of work. Whether you like her or not is unimportant. If she has eleven assistants or fifty is unimportant or if you think she doesn’t even know how to light a set, unimportant. it’s the final image that counts and I think she does pretty well.

  18. Annie Liebovitz.

    11 assistants.

    Great photographer.

    Which two don’t belong?

  19. k brown, they all belong.
    is stanley kubrick a bad director because he had several hundred people helping him out in doing “2001″?

    those photoshoots are run pretty much like a filmset.

    and if you have ever been to a filmset or worked on one, you realise that there are only a few people working all the time. the others that are around might be sitting there for ages doing close to nothing, but are specialists for one or the other. someone up the hirarchy calls them, they jump into action and might be gone to hybernation in a minute. but what they did do in that one minute would have taken everyone else much longer.
    also eleven assisstants means that 11x 30kg of equipment can be moved in one go.

    so, shooting the queen, what would you prefer as the boss on set? needing to talk her majesty and all the security and puplic relations people into a 10 minute cigarette break because your assisstant needs to move some stuff or rather go on, and prepare your next psychological move while things are taken care of?

  20. scott Rex Ely

    I think if people disconnected the whole solo artist with faithful side kick meme from considering the merit of ANY great and successful photographer and looked at the level of collaboration necessary for the scale and degree of difficulty for the assignments they receive I think one could appreciate the top shelf photographers better. Think famous Chefs or symphony conductors. Some jobs call for it. For example look at the number of people associated with Gregory Crewlist’s images over at Aperture.
    http://www.aperture.org/crewdson/

  21. Not only do I find these types of documentary videos entertaining, they’re educational. I really enjoy seeing how other photographers work with the crew and Art Buyer. No matter how seasoned a shooter is, He/She can always learn something new.

    If anyone is interested a couple days ago I posted a video of Jill Greenberg on my blog. It gives a little insight into her thought process of her “End Times” project. It’s a good watch if you haven’t seen it before.

    Jill Greenberg Shooting Bears

    Thanks for sharing the video.

  22. Obsessing about the assistants is stupid. One is probably her personal assistant, one a nanny, two are just drivers and then she was probably given 30 min. to set-up and 30 min. to break down so you need another 3 in addition to the usual 3 or 4 to help setup 4 sets and break them as you go. Then maybe it’s a mile to the 2 grip trucks. So 11 sounds about right to me. At VF wages that’s like $1000 bucks. No big deal.

  23. dean moriarty

    as former asst. who has worked number of days with annie i’ll chime in.. WHAT a “daunting shoot” i would probabley go deer in headlight, her brilliance is her adababliity within the situation.. not many can do that. As for 11 asst.? not all were photo assist.. that was michael roberts on his knees working queenie’s dress w/ his asst etc.. minimal crew for her.. Only wished she still shot film as her dig.. is SO dig. i feel their is an ensueing storm in every photo.

  24. … back to your original thought on tenacious photographers… how about tenacious subjects.

    Last fall I was asked to photograph Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. She has a reputation for disliking photo shoots. She didn’t disappoint. After the third exposure, someone in the back of the room says “Those look Beautiful!” She replied “Great. We’re done then!” She was completely serious and walked off the set. There was nothing anyone could do.

    Relating back to the AL shoot… a great example of both a tenacious photographer AND tenacious subject. The cool thing about this shoot is that both parties understood the importance of the task at hand and got the job done.

  25. Deschanel

    Thanks for the video (and a very nice blog). Some thoughts:

    1. It was a tiara, not a crown. The actual crown is worn only at state occasions like the opening of parliament. The tiara is “her own”, so to speak..

    2. Being over 80 years old, the queen hasn’t been upon a horse in about 20 years- the idea of her upon one- in the state rooms! -is ludicrous. It might make for a surreal picture, but it would also make her look like a fool. Rightly rejected.

    3. It wasn’t rude not to curtsy. Only British subjects are obliged to do so, and there has long been a standard diplomatic etiquette that some Americans- such as First Ladies- do not curtsy to royalty. Otherwise it’s optional, if fusty and unnecessary.

    4. The pictures really did come out beautifully- full marks for them. Perhaps some might find the digital addition of storm clouds heavy-handed, but did add to the pictorial atmosphere.
    Seeking meaning in said clouds though is probably a meaningless exercise. Impending death, doom, the fall of the monarchy? Who the hell knows.

    My problem with Liebovitz, and just my humble opinion: She does the opposite of portraitists who attempt insight, real or not, into the personality of the sitter, a “behind the mask” glimpse. She is ALL about the mask. She tends in my view to flatten celebrities into easily recognizable caricatures of themselves, representations of exactly who they’d like you to think of themselves as. Thus, Schwarzenegger is a muscular hero on a white horse, Ella Fitzgerald is a red-hot mama with a snazzy Cadillac, on an on and on.

    There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this. Cecil Beaton (who she gratingly pronounces “see-sil”) did this superbly well, but with rather more flair and imagination than Liebovitz. I just find her outsize reputation as a “great” photographer hugely overstated- walking through an exhibit of hers a few years ago, sponsored by American Express, I left the gallery feeling like i’d just consumed empty calories, advertising, sugared gloss.

    She has a peculiar way of depicting African-Americans in her corpus; whether dousing Whoopi in a bathtub of milk, or having a bunch of jive-ass stereotypes of black men worshipping the golden beauty of Kate Hudson, or the current VF where the only black woman looks like a stripper where all the white actresses look like debutantes.

    Her non-celebrity work is dull and banal, when it’s not exploitative. Susan Sontag’s son, the writer David Rieff, is absolutely furious with her for photographing his mother’s agony and death.

    Sorry for going on. She’s done some great pictures, but largely I find her vapid and overrated, better suited to the Advertising Hall of Fame than a hypothetical Photography one.

  26. she strikes me as a business not just a photographer

    there’s a whole lot of “business” and business that goes into her making an image…and if that’s what works for her sobeit

    and as for the final prints/portraits that were sent to her/Queenie after the shoot, they looked freaking spectacular

  27. @ 32. Deschanel: I think her clients, VF included, are quite happy with the photography she’s hired to deliver. If she’d been hired by a bunch of photographers to take pictures of the Queen we could debate the merit to the world of photography.

    The Queen on a horse would make a fine picture and it never hurts to ask.

  28. “The Queen on a horse would make a fine picture and it never hurts to ask.”

    You can’t you really think that….? Imagine you are a king, and aged about 80 or so you release a picture of yourself sitting on your horse in your enormous palace. Would you think that was regal ? Would you think that was the image you wished to project ? Of a mad old king, living in an enormous palace whilst your subjects struggled with their mortgages ? Possibly that would be a good portrait for VF or something similar – something that a picture editor might want to scoop – but for a commissioned portrait from a monarch you have got to be kidding…..

    I am very pleased that someone else pointed out the crown/tiara and Ceecil/Cecil thing. My innner pedant over that was railing about it. I also must say that I thought HM’s reaction to being told the “crown” was too dressy was quite amusing, all kitted out in her full regalia as she was.

    As an aside, I once asked the girls at the lab that did the queen’s photos what the pictures were like, and they both burst into giggles and said it was all corgis. Corgis, corgis corgis. God bless you ma’am !

    Re Annie Liebowitz: There was a great article online somewhere about when AL was interviewed by The Times (London) and they sent Elliot Erwitt round to her studio to photograph her and her assistants wouldn’t let him in because they said she was busy. When she found out who had been turned away she was rather embarrassed. I must say I don’t knwo her work well enough to comment, though I did think the Queen photos were not bad at all, though when I saw one of the Disney one’s in the paper the other week, I almost lost my breakfast. I am sure Disney are very pleased with them, mind you.

    RP

  29. this is a bit of a nailbiter! I loved watching AL work with the Queen in a way that is respectful, flattering, honest and not quite asskissing. She’s not my favorite photographer (probably, as so many of us must feel, mostly due to overexposure) but I can imagine her treating any subject with this same kindness and respect (even, heaven forbid, non royalty (Hollywood or otherwise)). It helps me hold on to my hope that even wildly successful photographers can be kind and real, not always divas (I’ve worked with a few)…

    Liebovitz’s show at the SF Legion of Honor just opened and this is getting me extra excited about going to see it!

  30. David Laline

    Annie portait will go down as one of the greats of all time but has anyone seen the piece ‘lightness of Being; by UK artist Chris Levine? It has simply blown me away and all those I have shown it to – forget whether it is is one of the better potraits of QE2 as one crtic stated this is surely one of the most incredible portraits ever shot. Check it out. Was on cover of Dec Walrus Mag in Canada and I believe it is being shown in Lodon in a brewery of all places in Londons trendy East End. Its remarkable.

  31. This happened to be the second AL video I saw today. The other a 45 min one on Fastcompany.tv shot during a gallery show of her work where she was giving insights into some of the pictures.

    It was interesting to see this video with HM and AL – I had seen the rest of that series but not that episode. The work in the actual photoshoot, their interaction, was interesting though too brief. Would have made a great special in of itself showing more background and what went into the shoot though I know this was not the intention of this series which was after all about the royals. Lots of good comments here too on the blog. As I read each one, I thought of commenting on it, then the next and next…

    @35: I will say that having HM on a horse with Windsor Castle in the background would be a striking image. But in the Royal apartments? Great for VF, but for the reasons Robert outlined, it would never be approved.

    @33: she is a business. A brand. not sure if you meant it as a compliment or not, but on some level if you are a photographer and don’t treat yourself as a business *and* as a photographer you are going to fail.

    She isn’t my fav photographer, but watching this video you can certainly learn from her. And the HM shots as displayed in the video and as I found online were incredible.

    And if you need a few assistants to pull that off? So be it.

  32. Monica Gianniti

    This video is brilliant. Great to see Annie at work and an interesting, yet brief insite into the Queen being photographed. I othought it an intersting meeting of two obviously strong woman. Very powerful.

  33. David Laine

    Annie showed the nerves of steel for which she is known and I think she met her match. The images were indeed strong. However I do agree with a couple of the posts above that the portrait ‘lightness of being’ I think forst shown at the Royal Academy by Chris Levine must surely rank as one of the all time greats – of any subject. He has made her a contemporary icon as Warhol did for Monroe in pop culture. I read that somewhere – not my words! Check it out and feel it – its unbelievable.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml?xml=/arts/2008/01/19/sm_thequeen119.xml

    The Queen looks modern yet there is a stillness the projects the inner strength and power of a most extraordinary lady. My guess is that in the years to come, in history, it will be the defining image of Her Majesty in her later years and not the potrait that Annie took as super as it was.

  34. 33. btezra wrote: “and as for the final prints/portraits that were sent to her/Queenie after the shoot, they looked freaking spectacular”

    Of course they look “freaking spectacular” they are digital photos retouched with Photoshop !

    Just look at the photo of the queen with the cloudy background.

  35. I think it is so funny when Anne suggests that she wants to photograph the queen on a horse next time and the Queen responds…”well I ride ponies” I don’t think the queen was in a good mood that day.