It’s not every day that the 61st floor of the Chrysler Building in New York City draws such a large crowd. But in 1991, renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz and her assistant Robert Bean, balanced on one of the eight gargoyles that adorn the building’s exterior. Dance choreographer David Parsons stood on another gargoyle, posing for Leibovitz. A video crew was also on deck to record the shoot, as well as a journalist and photographer from The New York Times.
“The height wasn’t terribly bothersome,” says John Loengard, the Times photographer on assignment that remarkable day. He had other matters on his mind: “This was all, very scary looking, but was it going to be an interesting picture?”
Leibovitz got to it, snapping photographs from myriad angles. After all, she is a pro, and the pictures were just more evidence of the obvious. The resulting picture was featured in the Times’ Arts & Leisure section on September 8, 1991, where it only bolstered Leibovitz’s already celebrated renown. The accompanying piece, written by Bourke-White biographer Vicki Goldberg, stated that the only time Leibovitz lets someone hold her is when she puts one foot way out on the gargoyle’s head, and once she feels secure there she makes her assistant let go and stands free above the New York skyline with the wind whipping at her trousers.
By the early nineties, Liebovitz had already completed many profound photographs—a nude portrait of John Lennon just hours before he was killed, Bette Midler bathing in a pool of roses, Demi Moore bare and pregnant. Some of Leibovitz’s work has even been featured at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.—making her the first photographer to ever be honored with a mid-career retrospective. Liebovitz has even been a guest lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology, who in fact provided the video crew for the Chrysler building shoot.
The day had begun in Leibovitz’s downtown studio shooting David Parsons, the founder of Parsons Dance Company. Yet as the day progressed, she decided to move the shoot to the Chrysler Building. The main impetus for this? Margaret Bourke-White, the iconic photographer, who was the first foreign photographer to document the Soviet Industry, the first female war correspondent, and the first female photographer to be featured in Life magazine. Bourke-White had been photographed atop one of the Chrysler’s gargoyles in 1934.
“I can’t help but feel that we’ll have Margaret Bourke-White’s shadow over us,” Leibovitz is overhead saying in the video. “But that’s nice; that’s really, really nice.”
Darien Davis, another assistant to Leibovitz at the time, states: “I think we sort of took the building by surprise. She just asked the office people, and they allowed access.” Of course, since this was world-famous Leibovitz’s bidding, this allowance was much more the exception than the rule.
Parsons was excited to take the shoot to such heights. He and Leibovitz had discussed the gargoyle idea a few days beforehand, but no concrete plans had ever been made. Parsons recalls he spent about 45 minutes out on the gargoyle, and openly admits that he had an anxiety attack around the 25-minute mark. “The danger of having an anxiety attack is that you get dizzy,” he says, “and I really needed to just get control again.”
Leibovitz understood the gravity of the situation, and began shooting instantly. As he balanced on, or draped himself over, the gargantuan stainless steel figure that stood nearly 700 feet over Midtown Manhattan, others shouted words of encouragement. Loengard, seemingly more nervous than his colleagues, had positioned himself further back on the terrace. “I wondered if any photograph could justify the risks they were taking,” he would later divulge. And how could you blame him? In 1964, James Burke fell to his death in the Himalayas and in 1990 Ethan Hoffman met a similar fate in New Jersey. Despite the undeniable danger, Leibovitz remained clear-headed and steadfast. “Still photographers always put their pictures above everything else,” Loengard says. “They can take an inadvertent step backward and fall off a loading dock.”
When the shoot was over, the collective sigh of relief was palpable. “For a split second, everybody’s gesture was clear,” Loengard says, “and all you can do is hope that that’s what you got.” Throughout history, artists have made sacrifices for their work. This is nothing new. Be it their desires, their personal life, or even their safety, they truly believe that in the end, it is worth it. And with greats such as Annie Leibovitz at the helm, there is no telling what is to come.