When Annie Leibovitz shot the late Professor Stephen Hawking
'This photograph said everything I wanted to say about looking at this mind; this very vivid, connected mind on top of this mountain – the body and the chair.' Leibovitz recalls her shoot with the astrophysicist who died this morning
It seems odd to describe Professor Stephen Hawking as ‘late’. The British astrophysicist, whose death was announced this morning, did so much to expand our understanding of time and space while living on borrowed time himself. When Hawking was first diagnosed with motor neuron disease in his early 20s, few expected him to see his thirtieth birthday, let alone live to the age of 76.
The photographer and Phaidon author Annie Leibovitz shared this view. “Stephen Hawking, as far as I’m concerned, is timeless and I’d been wanting to photograph him for some time,” Leibovitz told Time.com during her promotion for our book Annie Leibovitz: Portraits 2005-2016.
“I do something for Vanity Fair called Portraits and I asked if I could go and photograph him for that. It was an incredible sitting because we worked in his house in Cambridge. We just put up a canvas in his living room and we shot right there.”
Leibovitz didn’t just admire Hawking for his academic abilities; she also saw him as a crucial public spokesman.
“I just think he is an important person of our time,” she went on. “Every now and then he says something that’s very important. Like we should be looking at other planets to live on since we’re destroying this one. The fact that there is someone that exists who can say something like that with some kind of power and meaning is very compelling.”
Some photographers might have sought to play down Hawking’s disease, yet Leibovitz understood how the professor’s disability, and the technology that he used to overcome it, was very much part of his personality.
“I didn’t want to avoid the chair. I was interested in a more objective, more clinical view of it combined with the humanity of him,” she said. “This is what his life is. But he is still very alert and vivid on top of it all. I also worked with him in his bedroom without the chair but this photograph said everything I wanted to say about looking at this mind; this very vivid connected mind on top of this mountain – the body and the chair.”
For more on Annie’s shots of Hawking and other key public figures in science, politics and the arts order a copy of Annie Leibovitz: Portraits 2005–2016 here.