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How Could This Happen to Annie Leibovitz?

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Leibovitz's West Village home.   

When Tina Brown became the editor of Vanity Fair in 1984, Leibovitz was one of its marquee attractions. She shot everyone—Nicole Kidman, Uma Thurman, the Bush Cabinet—and her projects became bigger and increasingly expensive to produce. When she decided to photograph Whoopi Goldberg in a bathtub full of milk, she could now dispatch a staff to buy and warm dozens of gallons of milk.

Her bloated work expenses were a chronic concern. Anthony Accardi, Leibovitz’s onetime printer, recalls that jobs were often rushed, like the time he had to show up to a lab at 3 a.m. to pick up film of Bill Clinton and have work prints ready by 7 a.m., a job so hurried that he billed Condé Nast three times his regular rate. Accardi was stunned by the number of work prints Leibovitz would order, and apparently so was Condé Nast. After Accardi printed 300 oversize work prints of a Roseanne Barr shoot and billed Vanity Fair some $15,000, he received a letter from Graydon Carter himself, informing him that after this job, he’d be paid for no more than 50 such prints. “Like I was going to tell Annie that?” Accardi says with a laugh. “She would’ve boxed my ears.”

Eccles says Leibovitz could be downright tyrannical. “I once narrowly escaped being hit by a pair of shoes,” he says. “To this day, I’ve never been as nervous photographing a subject as I have assisting her. And that includes the several times I’ve been sent to the White House.” Leibovitz, Eccles says, once slammed her fists on a table, swearing she was going to kill him after a lighting test hadn’t gone well. “Go ahead, hit me,” Eccles said. He was by then so accustomed to the behavior, he says, that he didn’t flinch. “You’re not afraid of me,” Leibovitz lamented, skulking off. “It’s not fun anymore.” After her outbursts, Eccles says, Leibovitz would almost always call and apologize. Still, he left on good terms. “I adore Annie,” he says. “I’ll go to the mat for her as the greatest photographer there ever was in any genre.”

“She wanted her life to be like a magazine spread, nothing out of place, everything perfect.”

Starting in 1993, Leibovitz also began doing regular fashion shoots for Vogue. Her already elaborate productions eventually became virtually indistinguishable in scale from film sets. One of the most over-the-top undertakings was the multi-page 2005 Wizard of Oz couture portfolio in which Jeff Koons was featured decked out as a winged monkey flying through the air with Keira Knightley as Dorothy.

Leibovitz had always lived in modest apartments on the Upper West Side, but in the nineties she began buying and renovating expensive properties downtown. In 1994, she bought the Chelsea penthouse in London Terrace, and spent considerably more on a gut renovation (extravagant renovations became something of an obsession). In 1996, she acquired the Rhinebeck estate and converted it into a sprawling country home. In 1999, for $2.1 million, she purchased a 14,000-square-foot auto shop on West 26th Street, a five-minute walk from her Chelsea apartment, and built it into a state-of-the-art photo studio.

Leibovitz was sober now—her family had coaxed her into rehab in the early eighties. But the familiar compulsive nature persisted. Eccles remembers many mornings of walking into a hotel restaurant and seeing Leibovitz stewing because she wasn’t convinced that she’d yet come upon the ideal setup for a shot. “She could never quite relax, because she was afraid that there was an even better idea,” Eccles says. “The anxiousness about whether a photograph was going to be good enough was hard to be around. It seemed like a difficult way to live.”

In 2007, Leibovitz agreed to take Tina Brown’s portrait for her Princess Diana biography. “I thought she would just take a snap at my home,” Brown says. Leibovitz insisted that the shoot be on the beach near Brown’s summer home in Quogue, even though it was March and freezing. Leibovitz showed up in a van with a stylist and assistant. A second car stuffed full of clothes soon arrived. A wind machine would eventually be engaged. This was all on Leibovitz’s dime; she refused to charge Brown a cent. Unsatisfied with the day’s work, Leibovitz suggested that they try again the next day. “We’re through!” Brown told her, appreciative but worn out. “She’s a massive perfectionist,” Brown says, “and absolutely doesn’t care about the impact on her own bottom line.”

Annie Leibovitz and Susan Sontag were introduced in the late eighties by their mutual friend Sharon Delano, then an editor at Vanity Fair. Soon, Leibovitz and Sontag were a couple. Sontag was sixteen years older, and while she had had female lovers, neither woman identified herself as a lesbian. Still, they were romantically involved. “Call us lovers,” Leibovitz once said. “I like ‘lovers.’ You know, ‘lovers’ sounds romantic … I just had a problem with ‘partner’ or ‘companion.’ It just sounds like two little old ladies.” However they characterized the relationship, they were an unlikely pair. Leibovitz wasn’t apologetic about the fact that she barely read, while Sontag housed 15,000 books in her apartment. “I don’t think anybody would describe Annie as intellectual,” says Sontag’s only sibling, Judith Cohen, who feels warmly toward Leibovitz.


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