What do you notice about Annie Leibovitz when you're sitting less than a metre away, hanging on to her every word? First and foremost: That she's every bit a human being like the rest of us, with beads of perspiration trickling down her cheek to her neck and upper chest, vanity making a sacrifice for the humidity and heat prevalent that Thursday morning. Talking to press at the non-air conditioned compounds of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station a day before her exhibition 'WOMEN: New Portraits' opens to the public, the 66-year-old looked every bit the part of a photographer who's seen it all in her long career of 45 years: Loosely-clothed in her signature hiking boots (the same she wore when she visited Singapore three years ago for an exhibition at the ArtScience Museum), wispy blonde hair framing her thin, angular face characterised by a steely-eyed gaze.
When you lock eyes with the photographer, you feel both acknowledged and vulnerable in her presence, like she's seeing right through you. It's the same pair of eyes behind the lens that have captured some of the most influential personalities in pop culture and politics: Queen Elizabeth II on her 90th birthday in 2016, Yoko Ono and the late John Lennon hours before his assassination in 1980, and a pregnant Demi Moore that made us want more of Moore in 1991.
This year, the photographer returns to the spotlight (not that she's ventured far from it — she recently made headlines shooting a nude Amy Schumer for the Pirelli calendar) with an exhibition that celebrates women of our time. Commissioned by UBS, it's a work-in-progress with roots that lie in a series of photographs, 'Women', published in 1999 — a suggestion by her late partner, writer Susan Sontag. Part of a 10-city global tour, it makes its first stop in Asia in Singapore this month before moving on to Hong Kong.
Housed in the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station — a location Leibovitz chose herself — the exhibition houses more than 40 photographs with previously unpublished works along a wall in the main hall, with two-metre and three-metre digital screens showing her photographs on loop. Notable Asian personalities include Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai, Burmese politician and former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi, businesswoman Wendi Murdoch, Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, architect Zaha Hadid and China's answer to Angelina Jolie, actress Yao Chen. Leibovitz shares more.
On her selection process:
"I had women at the top of my head who I've wanted to photograph to update the series. The first woman I thought about was Gloria Steinem. She helped me with the list. Malala — I'm hoping to go with Malala to the refugee camps this summer, she's opened a few schools for girls."
On photographing Caitlyn Jenner:
"When I photographed her for Vanity Fair, it was an amazing sitting over two days. We weren't really thinking about a magazine cover, we were more or less helping this person get to the next part in their life as comfortably as possible. It's overwhelming how wonderful she was received. It was a big deal that the world responded to it in such a good way. I had no doubt on my mind that she was going to be on the wall."
On her wishlist:
"I did want to do Angela Merkel. I got a letter from her saying she was very busy. Venus and Serena Williams together. I'm hoping to — don't laugh — but I'm supposed to be photographing Kim Kardashian."
Advice for someone starting a photography career:
"When I have students in here from LaSalle, I'm very brutal. We discussed about not waiting for someone to give you a job. You have to start thinking about what you want to do, what matters to you and don't expect someone to come to you. It's really important today that if you want to be a photographer, don't think it's a dead art because everyone's taking pictures. It's a different genre to be a photographer. You have to think about presentation, editing, what you're doing and what you're trying to say. It's completely different that taking pictures on your iPhone — which by the way, is fantastic to have a camera in your pocket and be able to take photographs of life around you."
On how photography surrounding celebrity culture has changed:
"I don't know if I'm in the same line. I came to photography as a photographer first. It's a look at how who we are and how we live. And that really matters to me. It's really important — I never forget that. That's why I'm interested in Kim Kardashian. I love popular culture. I'm never really interested in a celebrity; I'm interested in what they do. I'm not just interested in what they look like."
On the different state of women now than when she first started out the project:
"In 1999, what we found out is that we're so diverse, and so complicated, way beyond what we see in magazines. For some reason that was a big surprise, and it should not have been that. The big difference today is that I feel a sense of confidence and that women have a better sense of who they are now. I have less to do with the photograph than before."
'WOMEN: New Portraits' by Annie Leibovitz will be held at the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station Main Hall, 30 Keppel Road from 29 April to 22 May. Free entry. For more information, click here.