Annie Leibovitz, the photographer, is nervous.
She wrings her hands and throws back her chestnut hair and says she really doesn't want her picture taken. Sweat glimmers over her upper lip and her laugh booms self-consciously.
When she's taking the pictures, she says, she knows how to make people comfortable -- Bette Midler on a bed of roses, Woody Allen in a flamingo-pink tiled bathroom, Debra Winger, topless, on top of her German shepherd, Meryl Streep in clown face, stretching her Botticelli features into self-mocking distortion.
"I give them a role to play," she says, "because everyone's comfortable if they know what's expected of them."
On this day in the Georgetown gallery where her portraits are on view, there's no role for her to play.
The photographer wants her to relax and be herself, but the woman who has been called the best living portrait photographer in America says that, quite frankly, she is just beginning to claim her own persona at 35, after years of winning fame by photographing the famous. She smiles into the sunlight. She mugs for the camera.
She is the Mathew Brady of the baby boomers, a woman who has captured the madness of her time with her camera. Her name is synonymous with Rolling Stone magazine (where she worked from 1970 to 1983), rock music, drugs, sex, celebrities and their sycophants who posed often and willingly in whatever fantasy the frenetic photographer cooked up.
"I know I'm going to regret this," she says. She pulls her oversized khaki shirt over her head.
She is also signing books of her photographs for friends, but instead of autographing them she is pressing her hands and feet onto an ink pad and leaving the impressions on the flyleaves. When she talks, her thoughts are strung together like secondhand Christmas tree lights: still bright, but slightly out of sync.
She squints. Looks away. Wails at the top of her lungs when the camera lens zooms in.
For many years, she says, the lens put distance between her and others. "For so many years I used the machine in front of my face. It was a shield. It was the only thing that made me different from them."
Taking their pictures was actually easy, she says. If people already had an image, a reputation, she could play on that. She invented roles for them. Moved in with them for weeks at a time, mellowing out with Mick Jagger and hamming it up with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. She was known as a difficult professional, a perfectionist who spent days getting the light right, the costumes right, all the time armed with 35-millimeter cameras strung around her neck.
"I didn't have much of a home life. I guess I spent so much time with them because I didn't want to go home. Also, the people were my age, it was a peer kind of thing," she says.
She is wearing black trousers, white Michael Jackson socks, red leather loafers, no makeup and a man's tweed overcoat she picked up for $40 at a thrift shop. She is six feet tall. Part Annie Hall, part amazon queen, she is strikingly attractive in an androgynous fashion. The look is deliberate, she says. By being neither male nor female she is nonthreatening to both sexes and presumably equally as attractive.
"It works. I know. I think I've gotten used to that," she says. "I think that working all those years brought out the male part. You stop thinking of yourself as a woman. I don't know whether it was planned. I think I was trying, since I was with men writers a lot, I was trying to be one of them." She pauses. "In my work I sort of like to be nothing. A blank canvas. I don't want people I work with to feel there's competition involved. But in a way, I'm beginning to feel it makes even a stronger statement in another direction. I wonder if it's scary sometimes. I intimidate them into taking the picture."
Her voice takes on the timbre of a drill sergeant's: "OKAY STAND OVER THERE."
She smiles. "At times I used being a woman for the picture."
It was always more comfortable to shoot men, she says.
"The change came when Linda Ronstadt and I just played. We got some red underwear and played on these pillows. That was an important picture for me because it was a start of being able to enjoy looking at women . It's weird now. I can look at women and really appreciate them. I can look at men and really appreciate them." She laughs.
She leans against the gallery wall, surveying her work. She takes a deep breath as the camera shutter clicks. The photo session ends and her face flushes with relief. The kind of look most people have walking out of the dentist's.
"I'm sorry. I really was kind of nervous." She sits down, pries the plastic lid from a cup of coffee and throws her head back.
She says she has grown up a lot, especially after leaving Rolling Stone last year to join Vanity Fair. "I feel like I'm now in a grown-up world. I felt like Rolling Stone never did want to grow old gracefully. Vanity Fair is showing me how to enjoy yourself in the older years and live well."
Leibovitz was born in Connecticut and grew up in Silver Spring. Her father was in the Air Force and "I spent most of my youth in the back of a station wagon, driving around with six kids." She says the family life was documented by photographs. It told her where they had been, and where they were going.
She left Washington to attend the San Francisco Art Institute and landed the job at Rolling Stone before graduating from college. "I was always interested in art and went to the Art Institute to learn to be a painter. I took a night class in photography. I think I was trying really hard to be freaky, but I wasn't very good at smoking grass. I would try to blend in where I was, but I never found myself. I wasn't a very good hippie."
When she joined Rolling Stone, she says, "I couldn't keep up with Hunter Thompson very well. I think I was trying for so many years and I almost killed myself in the process. So it's great now, to sort of . . . I guess I was really pretty conservative. I think I'm doing it right on time now with Reagan.
"I don't have any desire to be 20 or 21 again. I feel like I've had the craziest time of my life and I really feel it's a great foundation for what's to come. This sounds extremely corny, but it's really like I'm just starting. I have a reputation now as a portrait photographer, and I feel set up for the rest of my life. I love it. I have nothing else to do but be grateful. It's like everything has fallen into place."
Was there ever a problem with being taken seriously?
Her husky laugh comes easily. "It's fun, this stuff. I'm hoping that at the end of my lifetime, there will be a body of work. That is what I hope will be taken seriously. I'm sure there are people who will tell you I did my best work for Rolling Stone, and that will be it. But I haven't stopped."
Leibovitz has a certain quality, an aura of zaniness, that allowed her to travel with ease among the superstars of the '70s. Maybe it's because she was so young herself.
"That's right. I didn't know what I was doing before. I went from job to job, and you know how easy it is to just hang in there. I never went home."
Finally, she realized that her chameleon-like personality and penchant for living vicariously had left her with no sense of self.
"My pictures were becoming cold. I had to find myself. If I had stayed at Rolling Stone, I never would find out what I could do myself. I think I almost used myself up. I came dangerously close to that."
Now, she has become a sort of family photographer to some of her subjects.
"I just photographed Mariel Hemingway and the man she is marrying. I photographed her during 'Personal Best' time, when she was this gangly little girl, and then we did these pictures of her when she became more of a woman, so to speak," she laughs, referring to Hemingway's breast implants for her role as Dorothy Stratten in "Star 80."
"Now, to see her come in with the guy she's going to marry . . . ."
Hovering so close to fame, was there ever any envy?
"No. I kept away from having attention all those years because maybe I was scared by what I'd seen happen to people. Big heads or whatever. I've come to grips with the fact that I'm not one of these people. I'm not the people I photograph. It's more of a service I perform.
"I'm not making much sense, am I? One thing I learned from John Lennon was that we all really are equal. We all deserve to be treated equally. For many years, I don't know whether I believed in 'stars,' but I do think there are great entertainers and people who know how to please. Great entertainers, great athletes, great writers. I have respect for people who produce. It's amazing how people get motivated to do anything."
She says that during her years at Rolling Stone, "I had no personal life. My longest relationship has always been my work. My work has always delivered for me. It's a little backwards now. I've been seeing one person for about a year now. I'm taking better care of myself. I've built a network of friends."
It's the difference, she figures, between the 50-yard dash and the marathon. She echoes the sentiments of many of her contemporaries.
"I really expected to be dead at 30."