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Annie Leibovitz, in camera

Annie Leibovitz speaks during an interview in Toronto on Nov. 2.

The photographer discusses her new retrospective collection, Portraits 2005-2016, a document at once critical and celebratory

Lady Gaga is naked in Annie Leibovitz's new retrospective collection, Portraits 2005-2016: The singer is arched backward like a contortionist. Her body in its athletic purity is her performance, her whole self. Her face is hardly visible.

"I had talked to her the day before," Leibovitz explains, in a hotel room in Toronto, where she is promoting the book. "And said, 'Maybe you should wear a slip or something.' And she walked in, and I am not kidding, she just took off her clothes and did that. … I heard her say later, 'Well, I was doing an Annie Leibovitz picture and that's what I thought I was supposed to do.' "

Well, what is one supposed to do in a photograph? What is a portrait of a famous person? Is it an attempt to unearth the personality behind the official role, or is it a glorification of the person's office, of the mask itself?

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This question is asked on almost every page of Leibovitz's massive, gorgeous, coffee-table art book. This is more than an assortment of the American photographer's famously theatrical celebrity portraits: It aims at providing a comment on that span of years in the cultural life of the United States. It is a document at once dark and flamboyant, critical and celebratory.

Leibovitz’s original idea for the book was to document the lead-up to Hillary Clinton’s expected election win.

The book contains a kind of narrative: It begins in the mid-00s with some of that country's flashiest performers – Kim Kardashian and Kanye West taking selfies with their baby in a mirrored room, Rihanna in red with a red car in a red Old Havana and LeBron James's muscular back with its massive tattoo.

And then it moves through the next decade with the powerful of politics (Elizabeth Warren, Barack Obama), science (Stephen Hawking), activism ( Malala Yousafzai), art (Johns, Hockney, Kara Walker) and royalty (the Queen). Jeff Koons is also naked, working out in his private gym. Sharon Stone, Anjelica Huston and Diane Lane are in ball gowns together in a hotel room, in the middle of an unknown film-noir drama, acting as actresses. Alexander McQueen gowns are modelled by women styled to look like mannequins, so that the gowns become the living creatures.

These images, all beautiful, almost all redolent of glamour and power, are interspersed with images of mysterious objects: a TV with a hole shot through it, an old dress, a weathered desktop. It turns out these stills are from a single Leibovitz project, "Pilgrimages," in which she gathered and photographed objects once touched by famous people in history who had been important to her. The TV was Elvis Presley's; the dress belonged to Marian Anderson, the African-American opera singer; the desk was Virginia Woolf's.

Leibovitz's original idea for the book, as explained in an afterword, was to document a moment of the Obama years, the years leading up to the election of the first female president. The original narrative was proud and glorious. The unexpected history that then unfolded casts a dark light over the collection. The afterword even has a tone of apocalypse about it. "My imagined ending," Leibovitz writes, "which was really an extension of something or a beginning, belonged to a view of the world that had been rather dramatically shattered."

Indeed, in person, the first thing Leibovitz wants to talk about is this genesis, and the significance of the period 2005-2016. "It was just over a year ago, it was August," she says. "It was three months before the U.S. election. I had so much material accumulated. I thought, 'Hillary Clinton will become our next president, and then in January I will do a portrait of her in the Oval Office and that will be the end of the book.' It was the breaking of the glass ceiling – the beginning of a time and the end of a time."

As she answers, she is very slightly distracted by The Globe and Mail's photographer, Fred Lum, who circles us, clicking (a rather intimidating assignment for a photographer). Before the meeting, Leibovitz asked for his name so as to check the quality of his work. When we arrive in her room with her publicist I notice that she has two dossiers of clippings on her bed: one about me, one about Fred. She has vetted us. She even knows that I am from Halifax, and so anticipates that I will ask her about a legal dispute involving a collection of her photos owned by the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. (She declines comment on that, saying that the lawyers hope to meet in the new year.)

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It is not easy to address questions to someone as media-experienced as this – to someone who herself is the media, who is indeed the personification of great star-making, myth-making media, the cover photographer of Vanity Fair.

Not to mention the fact that she was the close partner for 15 years of Susan Sontag, an intellectual whose conversation must have been significantly deeper than mine. It's arguable that Annie Leibovitz, who turned 68 last month, is the most famous photographer in the world, and the majority of her photographs are portraits of very famous people. One wonders if she lives on a separate plane, a world of inaccessible palaces.

There is a photo in the book of Carla Bruni – the archetypal feminine, the archetypal privileged, in a long red dress, dwarfed by the gilt and French windows of a room in the Elysée Palace, when her husband was the President of France – that is of an unattainable perfection of luxury. It speaks of such rarefied access, such a foothold in the sanctums of the elite, that one is reminded that court painters of the Renaissance also became privileged people, merely by the fact of their receiving patronage.

Leibovitz is arguably the most famous photographer in the world.

In fact, Leibovitz is slightly shy, and even faintly apologetic about her comfortable hiking boots. "I have a lot of problems with my feet and knees," she says. "I don't dress up much."

And she appears blasé about the great and powerful subjects she has to come close to and capture. "It's just a photograph," she likes to say, deflecting any attempts at philosophizing about the nature of the artificial, or the nature of celebrity. "I have a problem with the word celebrity," she says. "I don't think of Stephen Hawking as a celebrity. It sounds cheap. … I like to think of myself as a portrait photographer of our time."

This idea is key to some of her most elaborately staged photographs. The famous George Clooney on a scaffold, surrounded by half-naked sirens, a photo that looks as if it cost as much as a movie to shoot, was a homage to Cecil B. DeMille and an idea of Hollywood. It is as much about a mythology as about an individual.

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Of LeBron James's back, she says, "His tattoo says 'Chosen-1.' And it's at the beginning of the book. It's a little bit of, 'Who are we as a people that we get a tattoo on our backs that says Chosen One?' "

One of the most highly artificial-looking shots in the book is of Donald and Melania Trump, shot in 2006, when Melania was pregnant. She is mounting a stair into a private jet, in a gold bikini and dark glasses, her belly huge.

Trump sits in a gull-winged Mercedes sports car on the runway. It is a picture of extreme materialism. The man is showing off a lot of expensive possessions, and one of them is his wife. She even appears to have the same metallic sheen as his machines.

And yet Leibovitz says it was not created as an attempt to mock. "It looks like a big production but it wasn't," she says. "I met the Trumps on the tarmac as they were heading back to New York. Their plane was there. I wasn't planning on shooting the plane. It was just interesting how the back door opened up and it kind of looked like God knows what you were entering, with motors on both sides … and it literally just came together. It's like these are found objects."

The Trumps loved the image. "That happens time and time again," Leibovitz says. "There's a sitting [in the book] with the Bush administration. … Bush is sitting with his feet wide. They love it. But some people look at it and say, 'This is a very sinister group of people.' That is part of what's interesting about imagery. The viewer looks at it and projects her own story. And the stories change."

Her most famous example of this is the photo of a naked John Lennon and a clothed Yoko Ono intertwined, taken on the day of his assassination. "That was supposed to be just a love story, and because he was killed that day it looked like it was a kiss goodbye. The story changes."

These portraits are beautiful in the simplest sense: They are technically perfect, digitally enhanced, lush, glossy, conflating the physical beauty of their subjects with the luxury of their surroundings, and in this they are fundamentally painterly. There is a portrait of the Queen here in her palace; the room is dim around her, with paintings of ancestors fading into the gloom; natural light from a rainy English window illuminates her (subtly assisted by a strobe). A portrait of the Queen and her great-grandchildren in a green room at the palace incorporates both of Leonardo's favourite tricks: chiaroscuro (the light against the dark) and sfumato (the slight softening of edges). The impishness of the children evokes Velazquez's Las Meninas. It also looks like a Sargent, like a Whistler; it looks not like a photograph at all. It is an ideal, or an interpretation of an ideal. It is a comment on an ideal. Annie Leibovitz laughs. "It's just a photograph. It's not real life."

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