For nearly three years before the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, photographer Annie Leibovitz traveled the country.
It wasn't wanderlust that urged her on. She wanted to capture the Olympic spirit.
She snapped gymnasts and runners in Los Angeles, fencers, wrestlers and weightlifters in Colorado Springs, women's field hockey players in Atlanta.
She went wherever they practiced -- riding academies, volleyball courts, running tracks, boxing rings and swimming pools.
She shot during the Games, too. But for her book "Olympic Portraits," she left out photos of events that took place at the Olympics. For her, the Games missed the point. They didn't show all of the athletes' work and determination as they prepared for the events, she said.
One of her strongest photos shows sprinter Dennis Mitchell's body parallel with the ground after dashing out of the starting block. She got the shot after pointing and pressing her camera on many repeated trial runs beforehand. On the first try, she got only his foot passing by.
Olympian preparation can be said to typify Leibovitz's work, which has captured in still frames many notable and less notable personalities.
"She works harder than everyone else. That's why her pictures are better than anyone else's," said one colleague.
Leibovitz's subjects have included U.S. presidents, Cabinet members, movie stars and unknowns. She's been called the photographer of record for baby boomers, tracing them from their anti-establishment roots in the 1960s to the pop culture of the '70s, the glitzy '80s, the celebrity-crazed '90s and beyond.
"Annie Leibovitz is a Norman Rockwell of our time," said critic Henry Allen of the Washington Post. "And like Rockwell, she's at her best when she's over-the-top, giving us hyperreal photographs that are like framed theme parks. ... Both have understood their markets and the America of their time."
The Leibovitz shots that reached magazines, books and museums might have taken a nanosecond to snap. But to reach that point 15ften took days and weeks of planning.
Take Leibovitz's most widely seen photo, snapped in 1980: John Lennon curled up nude in a fetal position against his clothed wife, Yoko Ono.
It was hardly spontaneous. Before the session, Leibovitz made sketches of how she wanted to position the couple. She had tried to get the composition right with other subjects, but it never worked.
Like many of Leibovitz's most successful photos, the final version was the result of her subjects' collaboration. Lennon agreed to pose nude for the shot; Ono refused. The contrast made the picture click.
In December 2001, Leibovitz spent just 10 minutes shooting President Bush in the White House. But two days of scoping out the inner rooms of the White House helped set the stage.
"When you trust your point 15f view, that's when you start taking pictures," Leibovitz once said.
Leibovitz, 58, didn't start out so sure of herself. During the early 1970s, when she was shooting for Rolling Stone magazine, she was afraid to get too close to her subjects, who were often rock bands.
"I was young, so I was scared of coming closer," she told an interviewer in Europe. "I was even scared to do anything in the studio because it felt so claustrophobic. I wanted to be somewhere where things could happen and the subject wasn't just looking back at you."
Yet she was assertive enough when she had to be. She got the job at Rolling Stone because she saw to it that the magazine's art director looked at her photos. Also, the art director liked what he saw, and he liked that she'd printed photos she shot the day before at an anti-war rally.
After a decade of photojournalism at Rolling Stone, Leibovitz wanted to embrace the studio work of composition and lighting.
She'd started out as a painter at the San Francisco Art Institute. Setup situations let her feel she had more of a hand in an image's creation.
She joined Vanity Fair magazine in order to work on her studio technique. She knew she'd have a broader range of subjects to work with.
Leibovitz started calling herself a portrait photographer. With the move to Vanity Fair, she also gained access to assistants and stylists.
By the late '90s, Leibovitz was borrowing from many of her different photographic styles -- the bright and playful setups of the '80s and, with her sports figures and war pictures from Sarajevo, the reportage style of the '70s -- to come up with still more new shots.
All her styles came together in her project on women of the late 20th century.
One was Kathleen Sullivan, a constitutional scholar and at the time the newly named dean of Stanford University Law School. The shoot lasted four hours and, as the campus magazine put it, "included an entourage of black-clad assistants, a truckload of lighting equipment and a wind machine."
Of Leibovitz, Sullivan said: "She was remarkably warm and charming, yet incredibly focused and intense."
All of that preparation pleases Leibovitz and her subjects. Sullivan admired the final portrait: "It is direct and serious, and captures the gravity of the job I had just learned I was taking on."
This story originally ran July 23, 2002, on Leaders & Success.
Source: Investor's Business Daily