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Annie Leibovitz

A Photographer’s Life

Since Demi Moore graced the cover of Vanity Fair back in 1991 nude and pregnant, exuding the immaculate, perfectly glossed sex appeal of a Hollywood screen goddess not in spite of but because of her distended belly, Annie Leibovitz has been heralded as the nation’s foremost celebrity photographer.

Leibovitz’s lustrous images are mainly composed of portraits of royalty, rock stars, and world leaders. Truthfully, the elegance of her work is almost too advertorial to be art. As VIPs and dignitaries take their poses in front of Leibovitz’s lens, the excess and idiosyncrasy of their lives are frozen into the perfect snapshot to encapsulate our epoch’s cult of celebrity. And while her figures are almost always snapped right at performative or theatrical moments, their interiority is blithely swept aside in favor of pure surface -- after all, Leibovitz will be the first to tell you that image is everything

Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life, 1990–2005 is a retrospective exhibition of her work that purports to give us a glimpse of not just Leibovitz’s status as a chronicler of celebrity icons but also her own life and the intimate, sometimes harrowing moments that have informed her work. Leibovitz, who began taking photos in the late 60s while an art student at the San Francisco Art Institute, is a self-described “working photographer” and has essentially bucked the more avant-garde conventions of the gallery world.

Unsurprisingly, her work is best digested in magazine format, and a large body of her work has been culled from the pages of Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone. The laundry list of Leibovitz’s subjects spans decades and disciplines, including Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Queen Elizabeth, Mick Jagger, Cindy Crawford, Brad Pitt, and Patti Smith. The show itself is a general outpouring of Leibovitz’s work over the years and is accompanied by notes, proof sheets, and prints. Everything from photojournalism to family portraits to the requisite desolate landscapes of the American West is included here.

Leibovitz’s show comprises over 200 photographs in which stars bump shoulders with the photographer’s family members including -- in a move that’s garnered both censure and approbation -- her late companion, author Susan Sontag. Certainly, the black-and-white family images, which reverberate with emotion and the quietude of non-celebrity, are a refreshing counterpoint to the prosaic slickness of her magazine photos, but even here, they exude Leibovitz’s tendency to elevate and inflate her subjects, as if they were props in a fashion shoot.

In the images of Sontag, however, the performative aspect is somewhat flung aside in favor of more ingenuous moments, such as her napping on a sofa in the Hamptons or crouching in the ruins of a bombed library in Sarajevo. Sontag died of cancer in 2004, and the collected photos depict candid moments of the couple’s domestic life and travels abroad, as well as Sontag’s cancer recurrence in 1998 and a harrowing chronicle of her life leading up to her death in 2004. While the photographs work to reveal to spectators their own emotions around mortality and raise the issue of the value of privacy in non-public moments, Sontag’s son disdainfully referred to them as “carnival images of celebrity death.” It’s a valid criticism, given Leibovitz’s penchant for occasional vulgarity and hyperbole, but in this case, the work is believably personal, and Leibovitz’s yen for the spotlight is remarkably muted by the palpable mournfulness and intimacy of her photos.

All the same, it is hard to deny that in general, images such as a scowling Robert Avedon or a richly saturated tableau vivant of Cindy Crawford posing as Eve with a snake draped suggestively over her body are little more than a cultivated expression of privilege and an infatuation with consumption and celebrity. This makes it difficult to take her personal work at face value -- especially given the easily manipulable conditions of Leibovitz’s cool studio environments. Given her preoccupation with performance and installation art, it is almost preferable that we see her subjects as performers in carefully staged scenes rather than as facets of her personal life.

With the exception of some of the images of family and Sontag, when Leibovitz is removed from the domain of celebrity, her observational attempts usually feel forced. Even her abstract landscapes -- which include a fog-swathed Venice and a direct overhead shot of Mount Vesuvius -- are overwhelmingly mediocre, as if they were placed there to scream out her status as an honest-to-goodness photographer.

The slick predictability sometimes works in her favor. If you’re familiar with Leibovitz’s work, you won’t be expecting any garishly rendered paparazzo blowups. Leibovitz, whose most lionized portraits include Whoopi Goldberg jauntily aloft in a bathtub of milk and a nude John Lennon clutching a clothed Yoko Ono shortly before his death, is more enthralled with the idea of spectacle in unfamiliar and, indeed, deliberately affected, moments. While Leibovitz asserts that her photographs of celebrities and of mundane moments from her personal life fall along the same continuum, her pieces are most powerful when she is focused on the façade rather than the interiority of her subjects.

After all, given that Leibovitz has worked in advertising, as a photographer for Gap and American Express, it’s the fusion of commerce and art that resides at the center of the exhibition. This doesn’t mean that her work can’t be thought-provoking or substantive, but even when she explores terrain beyond the tried-and-true theatricality of the Hollywood set, she seldom transcends the photographic demands of a staged moment.

Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life, 1990-2005
at the Legion of Honor
runs through May 25th
Tickets: $6 - $10