Without any signature props, just-so lighting, exhaustive run-throughs or celebrity subjects, Annie Leibovitz commandeered center stage at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s commencement Tuesday and assured the graduating class that great things can be achieved in these tumultuous times.
After admitting she had already gotten out of the day’s assignment twice before, she warned that her address would probably be the longest talk she had ever given without taking photographs. Leibovitz used candid vignettes from her own life to illustrate how a career is shaped by circumstances and choices — good and bad — and the importance of not just having a point of view, but believing in it. “You are starting out in a career at a very different time. And it’s important that you not be afraid,” she said. “Although I suppose you can take heart in that you are not graduating from Harvard Business School. Those guys have real career dilemmas.”
Leibovitz, actress and knitwear designer Karen Allen and designer Tony Chi received honorary degrees, and John Bartlett and Maryellen Zarakas picked up FIT Alumni Association awards at the Radio City Music Hall ceremony.
In her remarks, Leibovitz presented lessons without preaching. She explained why a 1938 Dorothea Lange photograph of a darkened highway, the route migrant workers took searching for work during the Great Depression, is a favorite. It reminds her of a story Lange once told of her work at that time for the Farm Security Administration. After weeks of 14-hour days, Lange once said, she had finally started the long journey home in the driving rain when she spotted a sign for a pea pickers camp, but decided she had enough images of migrant farmers. Twenty miles down the road, she pulled a U-turn to find the camp and shot six frames, one of a mother sitting distractedly as her two children buried their faces in her shoulders. That image became the most important one in Lange’s life and the iconic picture of the Depression, Leibovitz said.
Early on at Rolling Stone magazine, Leibovitz “would put up a light and an umbrella on a stand in the general vicinity of the subject, and would hope the picture would come out. Well, some people took the results as a style,” she said to much laughter. She was more intent on working with Hunter Thompson, who showed up at the magazine’s San Francisco offices one day with a six-pack of beer to pitch a story about running for mayor of Aspen on the Freak Power ticket. “Hunter was inventing gonzo journalism, he was very charismatic and on some level, I was in love with him. Well, everybody was in love with him,” she said.
“When I am asked about my work, I try to explain there is no mystery involved. It is work. Things happen all the time that are unexpected, uncontrolled, unexplainable, even magical. The work prepares you for that moment — suddenly the clouds roll in and the soft light you longed for appears,” she said.
Leibovitz recalled how a young photographer recently mentioned she was struggling with reality in her work — that reality was not enough. “It was always enough for me. I wanted to tell her that things are pretty simple if you just keep at it. I did think that you will find that reality is plenty — that’s life, you make of it what it is,” she said.
“As a member of the graduating class of FIT today, you are at a turning point in your life. Graduation is a turning point in everyone’s life. But what is unusual about your position is that everyone else who works in the worlds of magazines and advertising and fashion is also at a turning point, not just the new graduates in the field. We’re all in this together. It’s an extraordinary moment, liberating, and I can’t but help feel that you have the advantage here. The future has to be invented and the future is almost always invented by the young — you. I wish you luck. We’re counting on you.”