Working with Annie Leibovitz
(Today we revisit a piece written by our former Deputy Director and Communications Manager, David Blanchette, on January 31, 2011 after a visit from iconic photographer Annie Leibovitz. The photo above shows Leibovitz photographing the bloody gloves that were in Abraham Lincoln’s pocket the night he was shot.”
We work with photographers, film producers, and all sorts of image-makers big and small at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Still, it was a pleasant surprise when famed photographer Annie Leibovitz called out of the blue late last summer and asked if she could photograph some Lincoln artifacts for a book she will publish in late 2011, Pilgrimage. She and her staff talked with Lincoln Curator James Cornelius about items they could photograph, and I handled the usual photography permission process that applies to all such ventures. Her staff requested that this visit be kept as quiet as possible so Annie could concentrate on her photography rather than distractions.
A date for Annie’s visit was set. Only to be cancelled. And re-set. And re-cancelled. And re-re-set. Well, you get the idea. She is extremely busy, and other jobs bumped this labor-of-love project.
On the third try (or was it fourth?), Annie and her two-man crew arrived at 6:45 a.m. on Wednesday, January 26 in a rented SUV they had driven to Springfield the night before from Lincoln sites in Kentucky and Indiana. Annie practically bounded out of the car and offered an enthusiastic greeting, especially given the dark morning hour. Quite tall, with a long mane of blond hair unashamedly going gray; a ready, winning smile; thin, black-framed glasses perched high on her nose; and sporting comfortable athletic shoes to go with her black sweater and pants, Annie looked the part of a seasoned artist who revels in her craft.
As internationally renowned artists go, the group was traveling very light – a couple of camera bags, a tripod, and some hand-held lights. James Cornelius had several artifacts ready to go on his mobile curator’s cart, and exhibits staff John Malinak and Mike Casey stood ready to open exhibit cases and move exhibit mounts as needed.
Annie first went for Lincoln’s stovepipe hat. All Museum visitors, young and old, idealistic or cynical, have a “Lincoln moment” when they encounter the real Lincoln hat. Annie was no exception, her restless energy relenting for just a moment as, chin in hand, she regarded the hat from several angles, expressing her gratitude for the privilege of photographing this most iconic piece of American clothing. Then, to work.
As artists go, Annie and crew were courteous, appreciative, and very careful around the original artifacts. They also worked very quickly, with James, John, and Mike kept busy moving, opening, and closing. Annie and crew were a well-oiled machine – she would choose the angle, her assistants would adjust the tripod and attach the proper camera and lens, and the photography would begin. Annie photographed with the latest huge- resolution Leica digital camera, but, curiously, also with a point-and-shoot Canon camera, explaining that she used the smaller camera when first starting out on the book and liked the unposed and spontaneous look of its images.
Lincoln’s blood-stained gloves from Ford’s Theatre were next. These were brought out of the case so Annie could better capture the stains from that fateful night. At one point, as one of her assistants hovered near the gloves, Annie reminded him to be careful to securely store his light meter in its belt pouch so there was no danger of its falling on or near the artifact. Click, click, click. Adjust the angle a little bit; click, click, click. Switch cameras; repeat the process. Done. Smooth, professional, deferential.
Nine o’clock arrived, and we had to vacate the Treasures Gallery so we wouldn’t impede Museum visitors. James led the procession across the land bridge connecting the Library and Museum, and then down into the Lincoln Vault, where key items from the collection are stored when not on display. The Gettysburg Address, Mary Lincoln’s diamond necklace, and other artifacts passed in front of Annie’s lenses. In between takes, James regaled the crew with tales of each Lincoln artifact; his story-telling artistry, honed by years of practice and a true love of the subject matter, proved to be the only thing that caused Annie and crew to pause from their photography.
As the cameras were being put away at the end of the shoot, Annie took one more look around the vault, surrounded by original items from Lincoln’s life. She hesitated, apparently deciding whether she could try “just one more shot.” Lamenting that she wished to spend the whole day in the vault but simply did not have any additional time, Annie ended the shoot.
She graciously posed for photographs with all who had helped or observed her that morning, then gave the Museum photographer who had documented her visit a special treat: Annie Leibovitz took my camera, held it at arm’s length, and took a photograph of us standing together. How many other people can claim they have an original Annie Leibovitz portrait of themselves?
We look forward to seeing Annie again when her book is published, as there might be a special public visit when that occurs. Until then, we have a rare feeling here at the Museum: a big-name artist visited, and we weren’t reaching for the aspirin. Enough said.
Annie Leibovitz returns to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum on February 7 for a special members only preview of her exhibit, “Pilgrimage,” which will be on display February 8 through August 31, 2014. Become a member of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation and receive an exclusive invitation to the members only preview and spend the evening with Annie Leibovitz (Deadline to sign up for the preview is Feburary 5). For more information on becoming a member visit: http://bit.ly/ALPLF-Member or call 217-557-6250.
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