Questions for John Keatley

The celebrity photographer officially retires his “up-and-coming” title after hitting the top of the best-seller list and snapping an award-winning portrait of one of the best in his field.

Photo by Kyle Johnson

I know you can’t talk about the shoot that you did for the cover of the Sarah Palin autobiography, but can you talk about how it feels to have an image on the cover of a book that is number one on the New York Times best-seller list?
To get recognized for something that you love to do always feels good, and certainly that’s part of the goal, because you want what you do to be relevant. I do want to be careful and don’t want to say anything specific about the experience. But it does feel great. That and everything else that is happening is very exciting.

Speaking of everything else, last month a photo you took of Annie Leibovitz was published in American Photography’s AP25 book. How do you photograph one of the most famous photographers in the world?
Well, I went through this stage where I started running with these huge, elaborate ideas, and I started thinking of doing an Annie Leibovitz-style portrait of her, which I think is foolish now, looking back. As the shoot got closer, I started to realize that, even if I wanted to do something huge, we weren’t going to have the time or the means to do it. I came up with something much simpler, a lighting idea and a pose that I was really intrigued by.

Photo of Annie Leibovitz by John Keatley.

Were you nervous going into the shoot?
Only when I was all set up and waiting for her in the hotel conference room. That type of waiting — with the lighting set up and everything ready to go — was a different type of waiting than the days leading up to the shoot.

Did you get to talk shop with her?
I was working with a new camera and I assumed that she had the same one, but she didn’t, and she asked if she could see it. She started looking at my camera and we started talking about photography, which I didn’t expect at all. I would have loved to spend days talking to her, but it was only a couple minutes.

So, how did the shot that won recognition come about?
I thought it would be really cool to get a portrait of her looking through the camera. I asked her if she would close one eye like she was looking through a camera. She started using her hands, playing with light. Then she rubbed her face and took her hand away. I asked her to put her hand back up and that was the shot.