Annie Leibovitz: a preview

November 20, 2010
Annie Leibovitz's family snaps: My brother Philip and my father, Silver Spring, Maryland, 1988
Annie Leibovitz's family snaps: My brother Philip and my father, Silver Spring, Maryland, 1988

Every aspiring amateur should find inspiration in the Annie Leibovitz exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, for it suggests that one can be the most famous, most highly paid photographer in the world, and rarely produce anything that might be called a masterpiece.

Leibovitz is known for her portraits of celebrities, and by the ineluctable logic of the media, has gradually become a celebrity herself. Being a celebrity is akin to a state of grace – it imparts a special significance to every little thing one does. In Leibovitz’s case this means that some very pedestrian photographs are deemed worthy of inclusion in a travelling retrospective.

Her career has surged forward on the basis of a few iconic shots that have been reproduced over and over: a nude, pregnant Demi Moore on the cover of Vanity Fair; a naked John Lennon crouching over a prone Yoko Ono, and so on. But for every icon there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of pictures that might have been produced by any moderately talented photographer.

This ingenious exhibition tends to accentuate the ordinary, including many highly personal snapshots of Leibovitz’s family, and the late Susan Sontag, with whom she had an intense, decade-long relationship. The show takes on the aspect of a private diary, interspersed with the portraits of rich, powerful and famous people on which her reputation was built. There is also a series of large black-and-white landscape pictures that make a virtue of being expanded to the point where the surfaces become fuzzed and grainy.

The portraits are inherently interesting not simply because we are fixated on celebrities, but because the human face is one of the most mesmerising subjects for any photographer. The Susan Sontag material is moving because there is something all-too-familiar and tragic in seeing a vital personality succumb to the slow ravages of cancer. There may be nothing especially memorable about most of Leibovitz’s pictures, but this glimpse of everyday pleasure and pain will stay lodged in viewers’ minds. It reminds us that even celebrities are human.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, November 20-21, 2010