By the Book
“I became a photographer because of ‘The World of Henri Cartier-Bresson,’ which was published when I was a student at the San Francisco Art Institute,” says Annie Leibovitz, whose latest book of photographs is “Wonderland.” “I was studying painting. Maybe it was something about the word ‘world,’ as well as the pictures, that seduced me.”
What books are on your night stand?
“Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty,” by Phoebe Hoban, is on the bench where I have a pile of books that I’m interested in. Also Roni Horn’s “Island Zombie: Iceland Writings.” I’ve driven the southern route across Iceland several times. Roni Horn’s writing, which is accompanied by her photographs, is dense and strong and beautiful, like the landscape.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
Ideally, I would be off somewhere and not working. But that pretty much never happens. Books are almost always research for photographs. I become completely absorbed in the books that I read to prepare for a shoot. When I was working on a project about places, I read Thoreau before I went to Walden Pond and I spent time in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s library and at Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott wrote “Little Women.” There was some thought that I would illustrate a new edition of “Little Women.” I read Mabel Dodge Luhan’s “Winter in Taos” when I went to New Mexico to photograph Georgia O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu. Mabel Dodge Luhan was the eccentric heiress who was O’Keeffe’s entree to a sort of writers’ colony near Taos.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
Again, it has a lot to do with my work. I photograph people from all walks of life and I admire many of them. If they are writers, I read their books. Recently, for example, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me” and his novel, “The Water Dancer”; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americanah”; Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy”; Alexandra Fuller’s memoirs of growing up in southern Africa. I especially like “Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness,” about her mother.
What book, if any, most influenced your decision to become a photographer or contributed to your artistic development?
I became a photographer because of “The World of Henri Cartier-Bresson,” which was published when I was a student at the San Francisco Art Institute. I was studying painting. Maybe it was something about the word “world,” as well as the pictures, that seduced me. The idea that a photographer could travel with a camera to different places, see how other people lived, make looking a mission — that that could be your life was an amazing, thrilling idea. The pictures in “The World of Henri Cartier-Bresson” have been etched in my mind for over 50 years. The book was the beginning of a long relationship with other photographers’ books — looking at them and then collecting them and creating a working library. “The Decisive Moment,” with the Matisse cutout on the front rather than a photograph, is a more important book historically, but it was hard to find in 1968, certainly for a student. I own a copy now.
Who writes especially well about photography? Your favorite memoir by a photographer?
Sally Mann is a great storyteller. In her memoir, “Hold Still,” she manages to talk about her work so that it is understandable in the context of her life. They aren’t separate. Arthur Lubow’s biography of Diane Arbus is also riveting and illuminating, especially about her early years making a living as a photographer in New York City.
What are the best books about photography you’ve read?
I have a very large collection of books of photographs but I don’t read many books about photography. The collection is too big to fit into my apartment. Most of the books are in storage now. I’m living with a fraction of them — maybe about 400. There are so many that I love. To mention only a few: Lartigue’s “Diary of a Century,” which was designed by Bea Feitler and edited by Richard Avedon; Cartier-Bresson’s “Scrapbook,” the reconstruction of the album that he created in 1946 for the curators of his first important retrospective, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; Robert Frank’s “The Americans”; “Julia Margaret Cameron: The Complete Photographs”; “Nadar: Exposición Metropolitan Museum of Art 1995;”; Irving Penn’s “Worlds in a Small Room”; Diane Arbus’s “A Box of Ten Photographs,” which is a reproduction of Bea Feitler’s original set; Helmut Newton’s “White Women” and “Portraits”; Richard Avedon’s “Evidence” and “Nothing Personal” (with an essay by James Baldwin) and really all of his books.
You’ve written about your close relationship with Susan Sontag over the last 15 years of her life. Did she influence your reading habits in that time?
I met Susan because she wanted me to photograph her. She needed a new portrait to promote a book. Her favorite photographer, Thomas Victor, was very ill and would soon die of AIDS. We talked and made arrangements to meet. I was terrified about being alone with her and I read The New York Times from front to back that day in preparation. I also read her first novel, “The Benefactor.” She was impressed by that. She told me that she wanted to write fiction rather than critical essays.
After we had been together for a while, Susan said to me that if she read as slowly as I do, she wouldn’t read anything. It seemed to me that she inhaled books. Nevertheless, I asked her to make a reading list of books for me. It included Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway,” Elizabeth Hardwick’s “Sleepless Nights,” Beryl Markham’s “West With the Night,” Joan Didion’s novel “Play It as It Lays,” and Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice.” She assembled a library for the house in the country with Modern Library and Everyman’s editions. I met many writers and artists through her. Oliver Sacks would visit her so that he could use the swimming pool in London Terrace, where we lived.
I read “On Photography” of course and we talked about photographs, but she didn’t send me down the road of critical theory.
How do you organize your books?
Alphabetically. But I’m afraid they are pretty much in disarray now.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
We moved frequently because my father was in the Air Force and he was transferred from base to base every couple of years. We were in Youngstown, Ohio; Biloxi, Miss.; Fairbanks, Alaska; Fort Worth, Texas; Colorado Springs. Once a week, my mother would take us to the base library or the public library in whatever town we were living in and my brothers and sisters and I would sit on the floor and read. I remember Rudyard Kipling’s “Just So Stories,” the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel” and “The Little House,” by Virginia Lee Burton, and of course all of Nancy Drew. I read my brother Howard’s copies of “Stranger in a Strange Land” and “The Lord of the Rings.” Somewhere along the way my mother had bought an old bookcase that came filled with books, including the 28 leather-bound volumes of the 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Years later I learned it was written by the most knowledgeable and opinionated and literary scholars of the time.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
I’ve photographed the rooms and gardens at Charleston Farmhouse, in the English countryside, several times, and also the house and gardens at Monk’s House, a few miles away, where Virginia and Leonard Woolf lived. At Charleston, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant painted the walls, the floor, the furniture, the lamps, the shades. The house looms large in my imagination. I fantasize about a dinner party there. The Woolfs and various other Bloomsbury figures would be guests: E. M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, Dora Carrington, John Maynard Keynes and his wife, Lydia Lopokova. Maybe Frederick Ashton and Vita Sackville-West and T. S. Eliot.
What do you plan to read next?
I was photographing Hugh Jackman recently for the revival of “The Music Man.” We were incorporating dance moves into the pictures. At the start of the shoot he gave me a worn paperback book with one of Barbara Morgan’s photographs of Martha Graham on the cover. It was Agnes de Mille’s biography of Graham. He said he had just read it and when he finished a book he liked to pass it on.
And Paul McCartney’s “The Lyrics,” a two-volume book set that tells Paul’s story through his songs. It’s filled with so much life.