A Role to Play

Annie Leibovitz, from Annie Leibovitz at Work:

Annie Leibovitz at Work Actors who are photogenic like being photographed, and I’ve come to understand that they make the photograph. I realized when I studied pictures of Marilyn Monroe that it almost didn’t matter who the photographer was. She took charge. It seemed like she was taking the picture. There are other actors, however, who resist being photographed. They feel awkward. It doesn’t seem to them to have anything to do with their work. Meryl Streep and Robert Din Niro are in this category. I have the impression that a photograph seems superficial to them. They associate it with being a star and they think of themselves as actors first. They don’t want to be connected to the star machinery. I think also that actors such as Streep and De Niro got into acting to get away from themselves. They like playing roles and they feel cornered by a photograph. They don’t feel that projecting their personalities is part of what they do. They associate a photograph with selling themselves.

The picture of Meryl Streep in whiteface was made during a session that didn’t start out well. Meryl had only recently become a movie star. I had already done a fashion sitting with her for Vogue, and Life had used a head shot taken from that sitting on their cover a few months earlier. Francesco Scavullo had just shot her for the cover of Time. This round of publicity was for The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Meryl was uncomfortable with all the attention she was getting and she cancelled the first appointment for the shoot, but she was finally persuaded to come to my studio for two and a half hours one morning. She came in and talked about how she didn’t want to be anybody, she was nobody, just an actress. There were a lot of clown books lying around the studio and some white makeup left over from an idea I had for either James Taylor or John Belushi. I told Meryl that she didn’t have to be anybody in particular, and I suggested that maybe she would like to put on whiteface. To be a mime. That set her at ease. She had a role to play. It was her idea to pull at her face.