Annie Leibovitz, the celebrated photographer whose work I have been admiring since her days at Rolling Stone magazine, is shooting Sen. Barack Obama.
She's hanging back some as the Illinois senators, Democrats Obama and Dick Durbin, are posing for pictures with constituents snapped by their own photographer. We are at the Illinois breakfast, which the senators host on Thursdays. I wonder if what I am watching is something for Leibovitz.
Leibovitz, whose most famous shot is the 1980 portrait of a naked John Lennon hugging a clothed Yoko Ono on the day he was murdered, is on assignment for Men's Vogue. The glossy magazine is planning a big spread on Obama timed to the October publication of his new book, The Audacity of Hope.
Obama is a willing subject, giving Leibovitz extraordinary access in Washington and at home in Chicago.
The following is our edited conversation, where Leibovitz talks about transitioning from film to digital and how the artist approaches her subject:
Q. What do you look for when you shoot Barack Obama?
A. First of all, I asked for a couple of days with him, just to follow him around. And I think you discover this is a well-beaten path. He has been photographed a lot ... it is sort of like sketching; you are sort of thinking about what you are seeing and then hopefully that will go into a final portrait for the piece.
Q. Is the final portrait a posed piece?
A. It is hard to say. I don't do reportage that often. But I would say it probably would be a posed picture in the long run.... I am hoping I can photograph him at his writing desk.
Q. Do you shoot film or digital?
A. I am starting to shoot digital now. I am very interested in it. I am interested in being able to shoot color and not be so formal with it. That is where the digital work interests me. So I think I normally would have done this in black and white, but I want to be in the present and I think that digital color looks contemporary.
Q. Do you shoot both to have backup or in case you change your mind?
A. I've sort of made the leap. ... When Kodachrome went away, there were photographers who took boxes and boxes of it and tried to stow it away and keep it and try to hold on to it. The reality is digital is going to be there. I think it makes sense, if it can be done. I don't know if I can do it very well, and I am trying. I like the contemporary look.
Q. Amateurs shoot digital and then they stop and look at the shot. Do you?
A. That is part of the problem because I am doing a little bit of that, because it is all so amazing to me; not too much, sure, a little bit, how could you not? It's the Polaroid Syndrome. I think that will stop eventually.
Q. What kind of a camera do you use?
A. I've been using the Canons. I noticed the staff photographer was using a Nikon.
Q. Do you shoot an assignment like this hoping you will have one iconic photo?
A. You have to come into . .. this knowing you have a day and a half with him knowing what key pictures you are going to look for and then if something else happens, that's fantastic.
Q. What is your favorite photo?
A. This sounds like a cop out to the answer or something, but basically I am in this for the long run and I feel responsible for the body of work.... Sometimes it amazes me to look back at 35 years and see all the work. . . . it is hard for me to pull one out; I think people have favorites . . . and of course one of the more famous ones is John and Yoko on the day John Lennon was murdered at the Dakota. I happened to photograph him earlier that same day.
Q. Famous is different than favorite?
A. I like the quiet moments. I like when it does not look like you had to try so hard.