Kathryn MacLeod is an award-winning visuals producer and creative consultant based in New York City. She collaborates chiefly with Annie Leibovitz, along with a range of other leading and emerging photographers, to portray the most notable cultural figures of our time.
Formerly Vanity Fair’s Senior Photography Producer, Kathryn conceptualized and produced many of the brand’s most iconic images over a period of more than twenty years.
Kathryn takes us behind-the-scenes of iconic shoots, talks about her role as producer, and shares six photo books that inspire her work.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.
“Like so many fellow Observers, my all-time top ten hall of fame desert-island books include all the masters: Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, August Sander, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Edward Weston, and Edward Steichen — especially Steichen, whose body of work was a big influence during my years at Vanity Fair — I see they have been previously recommended — so here’s some others that were floating near the top of my head the other day...”
by Annie Leibovitz
“I’ve been lucky to work with Annie for over 20 years as she has gone about documenting many of the notable cultural figures of our time. Of course, her books hold a certain personal significance to me— from A Photographer’s Life to At Work but my favorite among them is Pilgrimage. This gorgeous book is a deeply personal statement to what has inspired, shaped and fulfilled her life as an artist. Her photographs of the ephemera that remains — from Virginia Woolf’s writing desk to Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium— were part of a project she undertook in response to a challenging time in her life — ‘an exercise in renewal,’ she writes in the book’s essay, ‘looking at history provided a way of going forward.’”
Georgia O'Keeffe: A Portrait,
by Alfred Stieglitz
“I’m borderline obsessed with Georgia O’Keefe — her art, her life, her style — and I especially love the photographs in this book for their exquisite intimacy and spectacular range — they were taken over a 20-year period. The portraits of O’Keefe are everything one wants a portrait to be — revealing, transcendent, of a time yet timeless. The images of her beautiful, expressive hands have a hypnotic poetry all their own.”
The Unretouched Woman,
by Eve Arnold
“Eve Arnold’s story is just as inspiring as her iconic images, which always bring joy and a sense of wonder. She was largely self-taught; as a 38-year-old Long Island housewife, she took a 6-week photography course; followed by her first reportage work: a groundbreaking behind the scenes look at a Harlem fashion show in 1950, a story that led to her association with Magnum in 1951 — she was the first woman to join the collective. She was a natural; the level of intimacy and trust she achieved with her subjects resonates in every frame. Arnold’s own words best describe my sentiments about this influential book: ‘This is a book about how it feels to be a woman, seen through the eyes and the camera of one woman — images unretouched, for the most part unposed, and unembellished.’ And the cover — with those stacks of color slides from everywhere from Afghanistan to Phoenix — can’t be beat.
P.S. Arnold was in her sixties before she decided to publish her first book!! #BeLikeEve and remember that it is never too late to publish your book!”
by Paul Strand
“Wow, do I love this gorgeous book. Strand’s journeys brought him from his native New York to New Mexico, where he explored the land, the sky, the architecture, the religion... Strand’s portraits of his wife, Rebecca, in Taos, are sublime — the spread on pages 40/41 — sigh. I grew up in the southwest, and these photographs make me long for home.”
by Guy Bourdin
“Like everyone, I’m a fan of the mad genius of Guy Bourdin, so it was a revelation to discover this book of Bourdin’s early black and white work and see how he developed his photographic eye. I love a glimpse into a photographer’s process, and it is a treat to see Bourdin’s early contact sheets —with his china-marked crops and notes which show his brilliant sense of composition. Always ahead of his time, he would create the most striking layouts by cutting out the contacts and taping images to the page. Everything in this book is pure heaven to me.”
photographs by John Penor,
created by Steven Sebring
“My friend and frequent collaborator Steven Sebring discovered an extraordinary collection of photographs taken by his grand uncle, John Penor, who was born in 1910 and lived his entire life on his family's homestead in Bison, South Dakota. Penor was a cowboy, but the way he captured the seasonal life of Bison — from rodeos to family gatherings to the epic landscape — shows that he was a natural artist. I’m drawn to the simplicity and authenticity of these moments - so perfectly imperfectly captured. It’s a small miracle that Steven happened upon this long forgotten box of photographs in a drawer to turn it into such a beautiful and meaningful book, which Penor lived to see published at 95 years old. Patti Smith's foreword so eloquently describes Penor’s photographs as ‘the most heartbreakingly beautiful shots of sandlot baseball I’ve ever seen — makes me feel like time lost was found again.’”
Kathryn, you’ve produced some remarkable shoots during your career. Young photographers may see the quality and complexity of the final product and wonder where to even start. Is there a framework you’ve developed over the years that helps manage all the moving parts? Can you walk us through the process?
Honestly, I feel like every single shoot is different. I'm scared out of my mind before everything begins, because I want to make the most out of every opportunity. When I was at Vanity Fair I was fortunate to do everything from the big Hollywood issue covers, the epic Star Wars extravaganzas, the group shots with 100 people, to portrait sessions with one subject — and everything in between. Each assignment was so unique, and there's no real set of steps that I've found that I follow. I just try break it down into something manageable and get the best support. I feel like I'm starting from scratch every time I do something — like every shoot needs it’s own unique game plan.
Do you have a regular crew of people you work with on these shoots?
Yes, especially when I work with Annie [Leibovitz]. She has an incredible team at her studio and many of her collaborators have also worked with her for a long time, so there’s a bit of a shorthand. That being said, we're always trying to do something new. I once asked a very influential Academy-Award-winning cinematographer to work with us on a very big portfolio. It was such an interesting experience to have his point of view — he was so generous with his expertise, and it was fun for Annie to have that kind of collaboration and share ideas. So we start from scratch with each shoot and ask ourselves how we can best tell a story and who’s the best team to help us do that.
When you work with a less experienced photographer do you take charge a bit more as the producer?
Yes, in those instances, I take charge in a way that plays to the strength of the photographer. There is a certain confidence that comes from having done this for so long. Working with newer photographers, my goal is to help them understand their own power — to encourage them to elevate and grow the quality of their work within the realm of their own unique visual language. I sort of lend them my confidence, while both challenging and supporting them. I encourage them to dream big. I've worked on shoots where we've done such daring feats — dangling people off buildings, for example, I help them discover that anything is possible. At the end of the day, you want to be able to set it up where the photographer can just take the picture and not worry about anything else.
What are some of the greatest challenges you face consistently?
To me photo shoots are problem solving all the time. That’s part of the job. You're always sort of encountering challenges and finding ways to turn a no into a yes, to make things happen.
These days there's a lot more emphasis on doing more with less. Budgets are really the top concern for people, but we just always make it work. I come from the editorial world where you're able to find ways to do more with less anyway.
There is sort of an urban legend about the productions I'm often a part of: people think they're giant, but you'd be surprised. For the most part, we try to keep a small footprint. We keep the team small and we try to create a feeling of intimacy, so that the set feels like an environment for a photojournalist, in a way.
So that's where a lot of the work comes in: scaling down. We want to have the people we need to do the job well and that's really it. Less is more. Especially for the person you're photographing, because a lot of the time we're not photographing supermodels, we're photographing congresswomen, people who are busy and have important things to do. So we've just become really good at keeping things tight and intimate so the photographer can have that connection.
We've done some huge, big budget things, too, with larger crews and big productions, but for the most part it's really pretty small. When I’m on the road with Annie, for instance, it’s often Annie, a photo assistant or two, and me. No stylist.
Hair and makeup?
If we can get away with it, no.
Wow. That is very intimate.
Yeah, you'd be surprised. Some of the best work is when it's that small. You're trying to maintain as much authenticity as you can in that moment.
So it's not, for me, about making something big and a big production. It's about how we can reduce things — at the end of the day it’s about the photographer and their subject. And I'm there to sort of help those things along.
Going back to your personal experience, do you recall the first time that you did a really big shoot and what that felt like?
Well first of all, I can't believe that I actually used to do this job without a cell phone, let's just start there. How did I do that? How did any of us do that? How did we do these shoots? And they were big. And I don't know how that happened, but it happened. So we obviously had some kind of magical powers back then.
I started at Vanity Fair in 1995. During my first shoot traveling, I made the mistake of checking a bag and when we landed I had the unpleasant realization that we were going straight to the shoot location in a rush. So I didn’t have time to wait for the luggage. I left my checked bag at the airport and I never saw that bag again! It’s probably still circling on the carousel at O’Hare.
Not a bag with cameras, I hope.
No, just a personal bag. Never check a bag. I've never done it since.
Did you start at Vanity Fair with smaller shoots or was everything a big shoot there?
I went straight from zero to 100mph. I think one of my first shoots was with Leonardo DiCaprio by Annie. Her images from that sitting are pretty iconic — Leo with the swan around his neck. She had an idea just as the sun was setting, and she wanted Leo to change into this beautiful fitted jacket which had what seemed like 45 trillion buttons up the front — and we were scrambling and helping the stylist button up this jacket so Annie could get the shot before the sun went down — that photo, which was inspired by August Sander, ran on the cover, and I think it’s one of the most beautiful portraits ever made of Leo.
We were at this ranch in California and it was incredible to sort of see all this happening before my eyes, this perfect moment ... the sun going down, and this moment in his career that was so special and to have that documented before my eyes was really just like, wow, this is powerful. A group of creative people coming together, with the right photographer, the right subject, the right clothes, the right light, the right timing, the right everything. And everything kind of comes together beautifully. With something like that, and typically any kind of creative pursuit, everyone brings something great, their talent. It was very profound to see that group of people coming together, led by Annie - who has such a strong vision — and having this timeless image as the result. I was hooked.
You live for those moments, because I don't think anyone gets super rich doing this. But you love the work. I'm usually sort of covered in mud and you're in the trenches, really, it's not a glamorous thing. People think it's glamorous, and maybe the outcome is glamorous, the picture that you see in the magazine, or on Instagram, is a glamorous moment, but the work is really people building things with their hands, with their creativity.
And sometimes when you encounter problems, you use that to sort of come up with a new idea, and that brings you some place that you didn't think you'd go and you want to leave room for those things too.
Do you remember an example when a problem became a good thing? There must’ve been some shoot where it rained, for example.
Oh, we LOVE rain … bring it on. Tornadoes on the other hand … no thanks, but they do bring the most amazing skies. That happened with Brad Pitt when tornadoes touched down at our location. We were in Cooperstown, and I don't think we checked the weather, and a freak micro storm touched down on the lake where we were shooting.
We were in a van, driving to the dock where Annie was waiting to shoot the cover. Brad was in the van, I was in the van, and the stylist, and trees were being uprooted and falling in the road. Our PA was driving and asked, “Are we gonna get hit by lightning?" and Brad said, "As long as we're in the car we're okay." The PA was a bit panicked and Brad calmly had her pull over so he could take over driving, and now we’re racing through Cooperstown in a minivan driven by Brad Pitt — who is a very good driver by the way. We got to the lake, jumped out of the van and ran down to the dock and Annie took the photo of Brad with the most gorgeous dramatic sky in the background. Brad never lost his cool, but it was scary as hell.
It seems like Brad Pitt would be the perfect person for that moment because he seems to be down with anything to get a great photo.
He's great. Besides being totally unfazed by severe weather, he understands and appreciates photography and enjoys collaborating with artists. I think certain people make their own decisions, while a lot of other people are protected by layers of decision makers. It is fun when you work with people who enjoy taking creative risks. When you have a photographer who likes to push things and you have a subject who's open to that as well, you can get amazing photographs. So you just try and create the environment so those things can happen.
So that also speaks to the importance of the connection between the photographer and the subject. What are your thoughts on that?
Well, it's interesting … when I was thinking about the photo books that I recommended, the word intimacy came up a lot for me. There are some photographers working at the moment and their style is great but I feel like there's a certain remoteness, a detachment. That doesn't really do anything for me. But I feel once you are able to achieve intimacy with a subject during a sitting, which is not an easy thing to do, it clicks for me.
So I guess coming back to what I try and do with the people I would hire on shoots, it includes considering how that person's energy is going to help achieve that intimacy in our environment. It's not even so much about the work that they've done. Looking at someone’s portfolio isn’t the priority for me - I much prefer meeting with people and hiring people that have a really good energy. That goes a long way.
I mean, yes, we’re often working with very experienced people with incredible portfolios, but their energy is one of the keys to why they’re great. And even meeting young photographers, I'm drawn to their energy. Because I feel like people can take a picture, but do you want to be in the room with that person? So that's really important for me, and also trying to get a sense of what they know and what inspires them.
It sounds like putting together a team to achieve that intimacy is almost a bit like alchemy, where you're trying to get the right parts together.
Exactly. It's a kind of beautiful chemistry. Because I find that most photographers are sensitive to their environment, so you want to be mindful to carefully calibrate that.
What makes a picture great, why does it draw you in? Often, it’s beyond the composition, beyond the light, beyond those things, beyond what someone's wearing. There is something that's hard to put your finger on and that’s this alchemy, this chemistry, this thing that kind of comes through in the pictures when they’re truly great.
How do you see the future of photography?
I think that it's such an exciting time for photography. So many people are taking pictures and so many platforms need photography. And now if anything, it's about encouraging photographers to shine a light on an issue that needs attention or amplifying someone’s important work. I think that's what's so great. Storytelling is so powerful. With magazines, you aren't getting the 20-page portfolios anymore, I mean, they're rare, but with a single image, you still have the power to tell someone's story.
I'm a very optimistic person just generally, because I always feel like everything is possible, you know? I come from that place of, "Let's do this!" And we just dream in very large ways, and we try and do the impossible.
Photo Illustration Reference: Kathryn MacLeod