In its classic style of spotlighting creative humans, the Chicago Humanities Festival (CHF) hosted "Ellen Stone Belic Presents: In Her Infinite Wisdom Annie Leibovitz: Wonderland" on Dec. 7 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.
Leibovitz shared a selection of her fashion photography featured in her newest book, Wonderland; and recounted stories behind the iconic photos and some lines from Wonderland's preface. Wonderland, published in November, is a series of Leibovitz's fashion images chronicling her encounters throughout her photography career, starting in the 1970s.
"I didn't know where to put my fashion workwhere it belonged, what to do with this over-the-top playful work," she said. "I started to assemble it and I said, 'Well, I should put it together into a book.' And that's what I did."
Leibovitz joked to the audience she had the slide show down to about six hours.
"This is her only appearance in the Midwest for this new book," said CHF Artistic Director Alison Cuddy. "We love when that happens, that we get to play host to someone like this. This is the opportunity for people to come see and hear from her. So it has a specialness in that respect, as well. I'm sure she's already done some interviews on TV, but there's nothing like being in person with someone like this, hearing them talk and respond to questions."
Leibovitz shared anecdotes from her career and a number of specific photoshoots. Beginning with her time as a student at the San Francisco Art Institute in the early 1970s, when she started working for Rolling Stone Magazine, drives down the California coast between shoots were great thinking sessions, she said. Leibovitz said she would find herself at the newsstand on Las Palmas poring through fashion magazines from Europe and New York.
"It was another world," she said of the fashion photography by the famous artists of that time. "The imagery was powerful, sexy, contemporary, bold; I was actually seeing color for the first time."
Leibovitz also talked about the evolution of fashion photography, which can be seen in her work. One story she shared, in particular, was a story of Rihanna's Vogue cover shoot that took place in Havana, Cuba. The clothes at the shoot did not fit Rihanna and, according to Leibovitz, she ended up wearing a Chanel dress backward on the cover.
"So Rihanna has a beautiful body. Fashion shoots had to adjust to that. The move away from models on covers had been relatively sudden. The supermodels dominated magazines in the '60s, '70s and '80s when the '90s act began to change. In 1999, four Vogue cover subjects were not models. In 2003, all 12 covers featured celebrities, actors, athletes [and] musicians, and many of them were women with very clear ideas of what they would and would not wear. Times, they are a-changin'."
Following her presentation, there was a Q&A during which Cuddy asked Leibovitz questions that audience members submitted prior to the event.
"I think we try to put the spotlight on really creative people whether they're in the realm of art, photography, like Annie Leibovitz or science or technology or architecture, design, writing, poetry, we really interpret the humanities very broadly," said Cuddy. "We're not an academic organization, though we do have academics on our stages and they're our partners and they come to our events, we interpret it very broadly."
Cuddy said CHF seeks well-rounded humans who "are making us think about things in a different way or who offer us if we want it, that opportunity to think differently along with them and even to ask questions of them and try to create a dialogue."
While Cuddy said it has been challenging in the time of COVID, the organization is doing things differently to make the programming as safe as possible.
"I hope they learn something about the woman behind the work that they find so compelling," said Cuddy of what she hoped the audience would take away from the program. "How her imagination works, how she prepares to do this work. Sometimes it's hard for artists to talk about how they do what they do. I know she's someone who does a lot of research. She dives deep into her topics to her projects, so I'm hoping we can learn a little bit about what that's like for her and how she feels about being a role model for women, how her practice of photography has evolved, where she's taken it. She's done some of the most incredible portraits of various celebrities or public figures of our time, but she's also done photography in warzones. She's just really an interesting person, so I think kind of to understand a little bit more about what drives her to do this work and to shift the work, how she rolls with the changes of technology and all that."
For more information on Chicago Humanities Festival, visit chicagohumanities.org .