A keen eye can take you far in life.
As a young photographer starting her career, the camera provided Annie Leibovitz with “a license to go out into the world with a sense of purpose” to interpret what she saw. It is fitting, then, that she was chosen to tell the visual story of the new Lincoln Continental, a car that was created as a result of Edsel Ford touring “the continent” and returning from his European travels laden with new ideas nearly 80 years ago.
Driven by a deep respect for artistry, and curious to see the world through such a refined eye, we joined Annie to find out exactly how she gets the shot — and how she would interpret the iconic automobile known as one of the most sophisticated designs of all time.
Tali Lennox, as photographed by Annie Leibovitz.
A CONTINENTAL SPIRIT
Even in her earliest recollections, Annie experienced life in frames.
The daughter of an Air Force officer, she studied the scenery of the American heartland as the family traveled from post to post in their station wagon, the cut of the window training her eye to see horizontally.
Through the great American road trip, the idea of the open road became a reality that has famously shifted the perspective of many an artist. Since the Continental was born of the notion of going out into the world and allowing it to make an imprint, Annie saw a natural storyline in the road trip as an interpretation of the continental approach to life.
From her perspective, the story of a car famously built to expand viewpoints and turn the gaze of its driver toward new possibilities had to be told through a group of “friends” representative of the new generation of creative talent: artists with bold ideas and a calm, unshakable confidence in the ways they would execute those ideas.
To that end, she cast painter Tali Lennox, musician Jon Batiste, actor Giles Matthey, and director Ben Younger to bring this sense of possibility to life. Each artist portrayed a character enlisted to tell the story of a director who embarks on a road trip in search of inspiration with his creative friends — people who absorb the realities of the individuals and places they encounter to further their own creative work.
“This art form is really sort of malleable to the beauty of capturing real life.” — Giles Matthey
“The story is, we’re traveling on the Lincoln Highway, which used to [run] from Times Square all the way to the West Coast,” says Jon. “We get out of the car every now and then, and we check out the vast heartland of America and say, ‘Wow. What in the world are we doing? Why aren’t we just living here?’ — that kind of energy.”
It’s an organic interpretation of the Continental spirit, one that is driven by purpose, but also by the equally essential need to stop in a place you’ve never been, stretch out, and open your senses to the world spreading out before you.
“For creativity, that’s quite vital,” says Tali. “It’s like, get out of your zone sometimes and share ideas and go to more expansive places. I spend days at home working on a canvas, so I really see the value in being around other creatives and travel and adventure.”
THAT BEAUTIFUL OPEN ROAD
The road trip has been a defining element of the American experience since the development of modern interstate highways, captivating the public imagination during the Dust Bowl era, romancing the Beatnik generation, and providing rich tapestries to inspire today’s Instagram set.
During that initial period, the road trip — with its solitary, two-lane highways stretching into impossibly distant landscapes, its majestic mountains and roadside oases the breadth of human experience reflected along the way — began to surface as a central theme in photography. These photos were some of the initial sources from which Annie drew her inspiration for the Continental shoot.
“Annie explained her vision for this project to me through visuals,” says Ben. “She had this amazing assortment of old black-and-white photographs that resonated this road trip feel for her. Each one had this great sense of style, and what she wanted to do with the look of it.”
THE MAKING OF CHARACTER
Just as Edsel Ford originally instructed his head designer, E.T. “Bob” Gregorie, to limit chrome detail to let the sleek, understated lines of the car speak for themselves, Annie, too, seems to understand that the true mark of assuredness in modern society is having the confidence to choose your own personal aesthetic.
“Annie sat us down and said she preferred us to bring our own look,” says Giles. “She gave us a rough outline, really, and left us to sort of play. A good director will always let you play, but guide you.”
For each of the characters, that translated to tangible personal touches that they carried with them from set to set: Tali’s own boots, the basketball that reminded Jon of home and his high school team, a battered jacket that Giles wears on auditions… and Ben’s real-life road trip buddy.
“Annie asked me to bring personal effects that I would bring on a road trip. [My dog Seven] is the number one personal effect, [so I got to] ride shotgun with the dog that always comes with me,” says Ben. “There was no make-believe. She said, ‘Just prepare like you’re going on a trip,’ so I did.”
The artistry of shooting the way Annie does lies as much in observing the life occurring around her — finding the honesty and simplicity in natural interactions — as it does in finding the frame. For her, it’s about authenticity and the human gestures that bring a narrative to life.
“The less direction she gave was when we were in real conversation, and that’s when she would obviously capture real life,” says Giles. “[This] art form is really sort of malleable to the beauty of that.”
BUILDING A MOMENT
Annie is a photographer who does her homework, seeking and sifting for just the right raw materials to immortalize an image that speaks to the best of that particular moment of a story, but has the resonance to make an impact far into the future. In this way, she’s able to build a timeless narrative into each frame.
“What is a road trip? What does Lincoln Continental mean? Well, [Annie] found out about the [Lincoln transcontinental] highway,” says production designer Mary Howard. “So we got some maps that showed it, just to have around for the authentic feel — like method acting, sort of method set designing, method photography.”
And it has to look real. In seeking to capture moments as close to life as possible, Annie prefers to avoid having sets built. Instead, she opts to shoot on location whenever possible and let the natural backdrop make its own statement.
As a photographer, Annie has to find that one moment in time that tells the whole story. — Ben Younger
To find the perfect natural setting, Annie sent her location manager, Ernie Liberati, out to scout for vast spaces that felt like those you might encounter on an epic transcontinental adventure — all within a two-hour range of New York City.
“[Annie said] we need wide open spaces, great roads, large bodies of water — if you’re driving across America, different aspects of what you might see on that kind of trip,” says Ernie. “It’s a tall order.”
In the end, the team settled on a blend of locations that spoke to the sum of road trip experiences: a drive beginning in Red Hook, Brooklyn, with a stop at the slate gray waters off Floyd Bennett Field en route to a dramatic onion field in upstate New York. The challenge then lay in cultivating a sense of movement in the stillness.
Getting the shot itself takes a level of refinement few photographers would be prepared to emulate. For Annie, audience perspective is key, and she has a method for achieving the perfect vantage point down to a science — one which involves a collection of wooden stools, each trimmed to a precise height to adjust the viewer’s line of sight.
The ultimate refinement, however, comes in her restraint, in knowing how to edit an image even before she takes it. This was a lesson Annie learned while summiting Mt. Fuji at sunrise, immediately after purchasing her first professional camera. As the sun slid over the horizon, she discovered that she had forgotten to pack extra film, and had just a couple of precious frames left to get it right. This perception of value carries over to this day, to her digital photography, where she makes every shot count.
“She has to find that one moment in time that tells the whole story,” Ben says. “Yesterday, we set up a shot with Annie. It didn’t work for her and we scrapped it. [As a filmmaker], I would have just shot it thinking, ‘Oh, it’s digital now. We’re not shooting film.’ But she’s willing to walk away, which I thought was something I could learn from.”
THE ROAD AHEAD
In the end, when the research and the props are all packed away, the Continental story comes down to inspiration and the ability to shift perception.
“That’s what happens on road trips,” Jon says. “You go out and find places that you’ve never seen before, and you’re exposed to different people, and you kind of learn how expansive and varied this country is. America is deep in that way.”
It’s that Continental ideal, a means of experiencing the world and harnessing all of the beauty it has to offer, that keeps us attuned to opportunities in the moment and feeds the evolution of ideas and dreams far after the physical journey has faded into memory.
“The idea of this journey is rooted in all of us. The dream is what everybody kind of holds onto,” says Duffy, the hairstylist for the shoot. “The story that Annie has brought together… it’s a journey that we all want to take.”
That’s Continental, by Annie Leibovitz.
We were proud to collaborate with Annie Leibovitz and her talented team to interpret the spirit of #ThatsContinental. To experience the 2017 Lincoln Continental for yourself, please visit us here.