Making Family Photographs and Annie Leibovitz’s Way

There were many people online panning Annie Leibovitz’s Master Class, saying she just talks a lot and doesn’t give enough information about her process. I was gifted a year of Master Class from a friend and watched a few of the opening episodes and thought they were okay, but they didn’t leave me wanting to go back to finish them.

Then, earlier this week, I had my AirBuds in and thought maybe I’ll just put it on in the background and listen to her while I work. And I ended up being drawn to the videos and watching them to the end.

She was brilliant. I know people who’ve worked as her assistants in the past, people who say she can be difficult to work with, but that may be true of many artists. The information she gave out and the photo examples she showed, they were well worth the time.

She readily admits she’s not a technical photographer. I’m pretty sure her assistants set up the lights, or just one large strobe softbox on a monopod, and then she tells them what she wants and they execute her wishes. She sees herself as a conceptual artist who uses photography as her means of expression. They’re the technical. There are ten people on her set, between actor/subjects, assistants, hair and makeup people, etc.

Annie's Parents, Marilyn Edith (née Heit) and Samuel Leibovitz by Annie  Leibovitz | Annie leibovitz photography, Annie leibovitz, Photographer

That’s all good. She has a budget to afford a crew and she gets what she wants. What struck me most is she showed photos of her family, the first photographs she ever made. A sweet photo of her Grandmom posed by the kitchen stove. Her Mom and Dad, laying around the house and reading in bed. Shot on glorious 35mm black and white film.

Her Dad driving. Ordinary photos but artistically made. And she talked about how much those photographs mean to her, and why young photographers should start this way. “Photograph whoever will let you, who will put up with you.”

She goes into her influences–Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, all solid choices. She does a couple of photo shoots on-camera for us to see. She discusses her famous photographs. But then spends more time talking about making the photos that are important to you. I listened and thought, “This is exactly what young photographers need to hear, not how to pitch art directors and what f-stop is best, but to make meaningful photographs.

I highly value family photographs. Printed and framed. Just today I gifted a portrait to a woman named Sandy as part of The Wise Photo Project (which needs you to contribute and take around this project around the world). This portrait is for her family.

This is a special gift–for both her and me, that I get to do this work.

I’d recommend Annie’s class to those who want to watch a photographer at work because she wants to document her world and that documenting led to paid work. Her non-famous photographs are as special as those with celebrities. Because in the end, what matters most is those that matter most. And creating intimate photographs of our families in their world, doing what they do–things you see all the time that you may not be able to notice—-those are the ones that risk getting away. Take notice. Make those photographs.

These are the most special moments that need your observation, your work, your vision and the element of time to let them disappear to be re-experienced some time from now.

Want to support my shows? You can, just visit this link at Paypal, or go to to add your monthly contribution to keep the lights on!

Check out my YouTube Channel of Photography Talks: my 6×6 Portraits Blog (you’re here) and my Daily Photography Podcast. Thanks!

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