Annie Leibovitz admits that her weakness is that she likes people.
“My pictures are always going to be gushy and soft and nice on some level,” said the woman who might be the world’s most famous living photographer.
The affable artist was in San Francisco Friday leading a press tour of “Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life, 1990-2005,” which runs through May 25 at the Legion of Honor.
“I’d love to be Diane Arbus,” she said, “but I’m not going to be making those edgy photos.”
She pointed to an image of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rob Besserer, saying that it reminded her of her dancer mother, who was always doing leg lifts. The photo was taken on a beach on a date late in Baryshnikov’s career, after a move created by choreographer Mark Morris. “Mischa didn’t have any knees left, so Mark had Rob Besserer pick him up and carry him,” Leibovitz said.
The photographer, who got her start at the San Francisco Art Institute, then created dozens of iconic covers for Rolling Stone, said she was grateful to be back in The City, particularly for this show, which combines her internationally-renowned commercial images with a few landscapes, examples of photojournalism, and many family photos (some that look like they could be in anyone’s collection).
“It came out of that moment of grief,” she said, after her partner Susan Sontag, and her father, died. “I opened myself up in a way that I really won’t do again.”
If she had to pick her strongest photo, it would be a 1997 portrait of her mother. She said, “I wanted her not to smile. I wanted her to look her age. She was very nervous.” Her mom didn’t like it at first, but changed her mind after she received compliments about it.
Leibovitz disdains the notion that photography often captures the human spirit. “It just doesn’t happen — getting someone’s soul,” she said. “If it does, it’s going to have to be someone like your mom.”
What results in a picture, she said, is so dependent on the people involved, and what they want to give the photographer.
“I like surface,” she said. What makes some of her photographs unique, she offers, is that she allows her subjects to play.
IF YOU GO
Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life, 1990-2005
Where: Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park, 34th Avenue and Clement Street, San Francisco
When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. daily, closed Monday through May 25
Tickets: $11 to $15; free first Tuesday of the month
Contact: (415) 750-3600 or www.legionofhonor.org