Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life

November 27, 2010
Annie Leibovitz, Susan Sontag, Quai des Grands Augustins, Paris, 2002
Annie Leibovitz, Susan Sontag, Quai des Grands Augustins, Paris, 2002

Annie Leibovitz’s career reads like one long cautionary tale on the fickleness of fame – a condition the poet, Rilke, famously described as “the sum of all misunderstandings”. As the world’s leading photographer of celebrities she has become a celebrity in her own right. This is the main reason her exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art is drawing big audiences. Not only is our curiosity engaged by the people she has photographed, we are equally curious about the woman behind the camera.

Leibovitz, recognised as the most famous and highly-paid photographer in the world, made the news last year for having run up a debt of US $24 million. No-one seems to know exactly how she did it, although poor real estate investments may be the most likely explanation. In some ways it only seems to confirm her status as a celebrity, as spectacular financial crashes are included in the job description nowadays.

The most disappointing aspect of this glittering tale is the work itself, which hardly justifies Leibovitz’s exalted reputation. I’m not trying to trim a tall poppy, merely expressing an honest reaction to this show. Put Leibovitz’s pictures alongside those of any great photographer of the twentieth century – from Cartier-Bresson to Robert Frank, from Diane Arbus to Josef Koudelka, and they rate no better than average. To be frank, there are more talented photographers working for the Fairfax press.

Leibovitz is chiefly known for a handful of iconic images, most prominent being the nude pregnant Demi Moore on the cover of Vanity Fair of August 1991; and the shot of a naked John Lennon crouching over a fully clothed Yoko Ono, which appeared on a Rolling Stone cover in January 1981. The image gained force from the fact that Lennon was murdered only a few hours after the photo session.

As a “rock and roll photographer” she toured with the Rolling Stones and took a series of pictures that have become forever identified with the band. In her work for Vanity Fair she has had the privilege of photographing actors, models, politicians, and every other life form that flourishes in the media spotlight. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that being photographed by Annie Leibovitz is one of the defining features of being a celebrity today.

Leibovitz’s name conjures up thoughts of Whoopi Goldberg in a bath of milk; Sylvester Stallone in the pose of Rodin’s Thinker; the March 2006 Vanity Fair cover shot of Tom Ford with a nude Keira Knightley and Scarlet Johansson; a stern portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, and a controversial one of a semi-clothed Miley Cyrus.

Don’t expect to find these in the MCA show, which focuses on Leibovitz’s work from 1990-2005. This period roughly coincides with her relationship with the legendary American public intellectual, Susan Sontag. Leibovitz met Sontag on a photo shoot in 1989, and they soon became one of New York’s power couples. Whatever the nature of their relationship, it was a loving one, perhaps tinged with a little hero-worship on Leibovitz’s behalf.

During these years Sontag fought successive battles with cancer, finally succumbing in December 2004. Six weeks later, Leibovitz’s father died, leaving her with a double bundle of grief. When she had to select works for this exhibition, which debuted at the Brooklyn Museum in October 2006, she decided to include a mass of personal material, treating the show as an extension of the mourning process. Consequently, there are numerous photos of Sontag, in sickness and in health, naked and clothed, and finally laid out on her death bed. There are a lot of family snapshots, hardly different from the pictures in anybody else’s family album. There is even a self-portrait – echoing the Demi Moore image – that shows Leibovitz naked and heavily pregnant. She would give birth to a daughter at the age of 51, and then have twins through a surrogate mother.

If it sounds highly unprofessional for an artist to include all this material, it is also the show’s saving grace. For although we may come to peer at the celebrities, we gradually become immersed in Leibovitz’s private world. Most people will be able to identify with the feelings she has for her family, and understand how her relationship with Sontag influenced every aspect of her life. What could so easily appear self-indulgent manages to retain a sense of intimacy. The exhibition feels like a private diary that we have been invited to read, knowing the contents were not originally meant for publication.

One begins to see Leibovitz not as a hard-nosed professional, but as a vulnerable and fallible person. This feeling extends to the way we look at the celebrity portraits and other images. There are very few pictures that qualify as major works, possibly none. When one casts an eye over her career the repetitious nature of Leibovitz’s approach is only too obvious. The John and Yoko photo is echoed by a picture of a clothed Johnny Depp and a naked Kate Moss, and was also restaged with Sean Lennon and Charlotte Muhl.

Annie Leibovitz, Johnny Depp & Kate Moss

She photographed Whoopi Goldberg in the bath, but also Angelina Jolie, and in this show, Susan Sontag. There are just as many variations on a figure on a bed. For Vanity Fair there is a series of group portraits that become tedious when viewed one after another.

Many compositions have been borrowed from famous works of art. The Ford, Knightley and Johansson shot, for instance, playfully puns on Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe. There are also numerous echoes of other photographers – so many that I fear my imagination is working too hard.

There is no suggestion of plagiarism in these works but they are strongly formulaic – an occupational hazard for a sought-after portraitist who has to keep coming up with one killer image after another for a magazine cover. This goes beyond the call of art and takes us onto the assembly line. With many of her portraits she falls back on the simple expedient of a black-and-white image of a figure in a bare room. This is the way we meet Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Brice Marden, Chuck Close, Tony Kushner, and many another actor, artist or writer.

Her portraits may gain impact simply because of an intense focus on the subject’s face. William S. Burroughs, the author of cult novels such as The Naked Lunch, is captured in confronting detail. Leibovitz emphasises Burroughs’s gaunt, bony features, his spots and wrinkles, and the few wisps of hair clinging to his bald dome. The profile view is virtually a death mask. This is not very different to a profile shot of the elderly artist, Louise Bourgeois, with her eyes shut tight and her face cobwebbed with wrinkles.

A face – any face – has an intrinsic fascination for the viewer. Even the plainest mug cannot fail to be interesting in a photo, while the ugliest are most interesting of all. This is not the case with landscape, represented by a series of over-stretched, black-and-white prints that show grainy images of locations such as Monument Valley and Mount Vesuvius. These pictures, mostly taken from a helicopter, are notable only for their scale. Shots of Vita Sackville-West’s garden at Sissinghurst, are included because of their sentimental association with Sontag, who loved this place.

In the catalogue, Leibovitz tells us these landscape pictures were never a success with the magazines that commissioned them, and it’s easy to see why. They are a personal whim – signalling her relief not to be shooting a portrait, but showing no special affinity with the landscape genre. She’s no Ansel Adams, and when it comes to aerial photography, no Richard Woldendorp.

With a retrospective by any wellknown photographer one expects that it will have been subject to the most rigorous editing, with many hair-splitting decisions as to what images are included and excluded. What is most remarkable about this show is that its true interest lies in the looseness of the editing. Without the personal material that makes up roughly half the exhibition, we would see only a monotonous parade of faces, with the imaginative limitations of the photos cruelly exposed. The inclusion of the family snaps, and the chronicle of Sontag’s last years, takes us into a different dimension. We are not looking at celebrities or works of art, but records of human life. It is as though Leibovitz had to reassert her identity as flesh and blood, not simply an appendage to the fame game. It is her willingness to step aside and examine her place in this parade of artifice that gives this exhibition its distinction.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, November 27, 2010

Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life 1990-2005

Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, November 19, 2010 – April 26, 2011