FYI: If you sign up for a MasterClass course by clicking on the affiliate links in this post, Open Culture will receive a small fee that helps support our operation.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Dolly Parton and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Barack Obama and family, Bruce Springsteen, Whoopi Goldberg, Bill Gates, Queen Elizabeth II, Lady Gaga: name someone who has risen to the very top of the zeitgeist over the past few decades, and Annie Leibovitz has probably photographed them. Her images, in fact, have often come to stand for the images of her subjects in the culture: when we think of certain celebrities, we instinctively imagine them as they appeared on a Leibovitz-shot cover of Rolling Stone or Vanity Fair. Safe to say, then, that she knows a thing or two about how to take a picture that makes an impact.
The people at online education company Masterclass have now packaged that knowledge in “Annie Leibovitz Teaches Photography,” a course that joins their existing lineup that includes Helen Mirren on acting, Steve Martin on comedy, Werner Herzog on filmmaking, and Herbie Hancock on jazz. For a price of $90 (or $180 for a year-long pass to all of their classes), Masterclass offers a package of workbook-accompanied video lessons in which “Annie teaches you how to develop concepts, work with subjects, shoot with natural light, and bring images to life in post-production.”
The early lessons in “Annie Leibovitz Teaches Photography” cover subjects like memories of her own development as a photographer to discussions of her influences and her view of the medium itself. Later on, she gets into the real-life case study of shooting chef Alice Waters for Vanity Fair, digital post-production, how to come up with the right concept (ideally, so her career has shown, one just strange or daring enough to get people talking), and how to work with your subject. “There’s this idea that in portraiture, it’s the photographer’s job to set the subject at ease,” Leibovitz says in the class trailer above. “I don’t believe that.”
Few aspects of Leibovitz’s method have drawn as much attention as the way she handles her subjects, which tends to involve both developing enough of a relationship with them to gain some understanding of their inner lives and putting them in situations which, so she has studiously learned while getting to know them, may lie a bit outside of their comfort zone. Few of us will ever have that much face time with a photographer like Leibovitz, let alone enough to ask her in-depth questions about the craft, but if you suspect you might find yourself one day in a position to photograph the next Caitlyn Jenner, Mark Zuckerberg, or Kim Kardashian — or someone more important to you personally — the strategies explained in her Masterclass course will surely come in handy.
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.