The perfect portrait: Amherst College unveils portrait of former president Biddy Martin taken by Annie Leibovitz
AMHERST — Even after her term as Amherst College’s first female president ended, Biddy Martin found a way to continue to break barriers at the school.
The former president attended a ceremony at Amherst College’s Johnson Chapel for the unveiling of her official school portrait on Friday, joining the chapel’s portraits of other Amherst presidents and famed alums. But rather than a painted portrait, as all previous portraits displayed in the chapel have been, Martin elected for a photo portrait — a photo taken by none other than legendary photographer Annie Leibovitz.
“It’s an incredible gift and honor for the college, but perhaps an even greater gift was the opportunity to spend two whole days with Annie Leibovitz and her team,” Martin said in a speech at the unveiling to an audience that included Amherst College’s board of trustees and presidents of other liberal arts colleges in the state. “Being the president of Amherst College for 11 years will always have been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”
Leibovitz, whose magazine cover photos of celebrities including John Lennon, Demi Moore and Dolly Parton remain some of the most iconic photographs of the 20th century, first met Martin when she received an honorary degree from Amherst College in 2019. Leibovitz recalled she felt suddenly compelled to ask Martin to take her photograph.
“I don’t ever do that,” said Leibovitz in an interview following the unveiling. “I don’t know why I said that. I just looked at her and thought she was incredible.”
When Martin suggested the idea of a photo portrait instead of a painting, Leibovitz said she first tried to talk Martin out of it.
“I felt there was more license in painting. I was concerned — I just felt like maybe a painter would do a better job,” Leibovitz said. “I literally started sweating when she said she really wanted it to be (a photo) … as soon as she said that I came to this room (in Johnson Chapel) and I really love this room, and that really had a lot to do with what we did. I told Biddy later I would take her picture.”
For the portrait, Leibovitz said she was inspired by the Connecticut River Valley, as well as the composition of Johnson Chapel’s interior, in composing the photo. The finished portrait shows a confident-looking Martin seated, head leaning slightly to one side, her orange and black outfit matching a natural New England backdrop.
“As I sat there, twitching nervously, Annie would ask to have one little thing change after each shot, and then honestly, when she showed me her camera, it looked completely different,” Martin said in her speech. “Being able to witness the process was one of the greatest gifts of my life.”
Martin’s portrait will join those of other famed alums and affiliates of the college, including Emily Dickinson, whose family was closely tied to the college; Rose Olver, the first woman to hold a tenure-track position at the school; and Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president of the United States.
Though a portrait of an Amherst College president is just a minor entry in Leibovitz’s work, she called the experience one of the “most wonderful” she’s had in her long photography career.
“I believe when you take a portrait of someone, it should be timeless, it has to be able to last, and this had a whole other kind of level to it,” Leibovitz said. “Working with Biddy, who is so generous and just a nurturer, and just allowing you to do what you’re going to do, that’s what was so exciting to go through this process.”