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Friday, November 7, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Annie Leibovitz returns to her rock photo roots with 'American Music'

Seattle Times music critic

Exhibit preview


"American Music: Photographs by Annie Leibovitz," based on her new book, "American Music" ($75; Random House); opens tomorrow and runs through Jan. 19, 2004, at Experience Music Project, Seattle Center; included with price of museum admittance; for ticket and EMP information, call 206-770-2700, or log onto www.emplive.com
Annie Leibovitz, in blue jeans and black turtleneck, was running around yesterday morning, helping her two assistants and several Experience Music Project workers hang some of the 60 portraits that make up "American Music," an exhibit drawn from her new book of the same name. While still moving about, keeping an eye on the workers and sipping a cappuccino, she answered questions about the exhibit, which opens tomorrow and continues through Jan. 19.

Leibovitz is probably the world's most famous rock 'n' roll photographer. She single-handedly made Rolling Stone magazine, where she started at age 20 in 1970 and worked for 13 years, a significant showcase of photographic art. For the past two decades, she's worked for Vanity Fair, shooting a variety of subjects. "American Music" is a return to her roots.

She photographed musicians she loved and admired, in their milieu, from a front porch to a recording studio. They included jazz, folk, blues, rap and rock artists, from Bonnie Raitt to Mos Def, from B.B. King to Dolly Parton, from Sean "P. Diddy" Combs to Dave Brubeck.

"This was a perfect idea," she says about opening the exhibit at EMP — it next goes to The Hospital in London, a facility affiliated with EMP, and then to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. "I like Paul Allen, I like Seattle — in fact, I think I'm moving to Seattle." She let out a loud laugh, something she does easily and often.

"And I thought that this project was better tailored to be in a place where you could go and hear about other music. It fits. This fits. Really for the very same reasons that they created the museum — to have a place to keep music alive and find out about and learn about it. And I knew they were going to treat it in the best way."

Visitors to the museum will be able to hear her comments about the photos as they view the exhibit, via EMP's own MEG personal audio system.

"They really had to drag that out of me," Leibovitz confessed. In the book, the text reveals little about the photos or how she got them.

"I really did this book by the seat of my pants. I know something about the people I'm going to photograph, but I don't know everything. So when it came time to do these audio tapes, I was like cramming, like taking an exam. On some level, I know who these people are, but it was a learning process for me.

"It's a very personal project, and I admire and love their music, and that's why they're here. Some of them are more for historical reasons. The bottom line is, you need about five volumes, and this is volume one. So it's just a start."

Several workers carried in a large color photo of the Roots playing on a New Orleans street, surrounded by fans.

"Isn't that amazing," she said, rushing over toward the photo. "It's like, surreal."

Most of the shots in the show are black-and-white. I asked why this one was in color.

"Oh, I don't know." She said, and laughed. "It was overcast. And when it's overcast, you get beautiful color."

Another monumental color photo in the show portrays the White Stripes as a circus knife-throwing act.

"What I love about them," she said, "and they've said this themselves, is that he really thinks of the band as an art project. We did some indoor shots, too. Being in a small room with the both of them, it was very sexy to me. Their little play between them is amazing."

We came to a photo of Rakim, Eminem and Dr. Dre.

"They didn't want to pose that close," she said. "It's true. This is what actually happened: Em said 'We don't do this in rap. We don't get that close to each other.' He did not like the idea that they were actually almost touching. That was a problem, believe it or not. But they did it, these three great aspects of rap. I think of it as kinda like an Oreo cookie."

Her explosive laugh erupted again. "Don't quote me! Oh, you can. I'm kidding. But I'm gonna get death threats!"

Patrick MacDonald: 206-464-2312, pmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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