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Thursday, February 22nd, 2007
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A Photographer's Life: 1990-2005

by Annie Leibovitz

Death Kit

A review by David Thomson

It is as pretty a life as one invented for a romance. Looking at Annie Leibovitz's portraits of celebrities, one realizes that when she is successful she captures what it is the subject would like to be, or to be seen as. Indeed, this whole book -- heavier than many newborn babies -- is what someone like Leibovitz wants to be seen as, and what her magazines urge upon us: rich but natural; famous but ordinary; beautiful but mortal; a still photograph, but going on forever; a celebrity but decent. It is a delicious recipe, but hard to digest. So, really, it's a matter of when you find yourself throwing up over these gravure pages. Don't lift the book without help, and don't browse it on a full stomach.

By now, you know Leibovitz as well as you know what she sees. As I write this, her testament is number 114 on Amazon, an extraordinary success for so expensive a book, and at a time when photography books don't sell. But there is a difference here: not only is this book about celebrities, but its author has herself become one. And why not? The bar is low. There is a museum show of her pictures. I have seen her lately on Charlie Rose and in a PBS American Masters program. And I may have missed other things, though I did see a bird-brained review of her triumph by Joyce Carol Oates in the New York Review of Books.

But Leibovitz fits the recipe, and the book is the proof of it. She is not beautiful, but she does not care, and in the process she has become "strong" and "herself." She has fine young children, and she has been in love. She has a sturdy, wholesome family that does things like cuddle and go to the beach. And she herself has been to the Hotel Gritti Palace in Venice, to Monument Valley (though that job turned out a bit of a mess), to Petra, and to Keith Richards's "library" in Weston, Connecticut.

As if strolling in a gallery, let us linger a moment over the Keith Richards picture, over his cunning gaze. Of course, he has known the photographer for a long time. When she worked for Rolling Stone, she traveled with his band. She had access, and access is a hallowed gift -- it is the grail of the celebrity culture. But access goes both ways, doesn't it? And Keith has a look in the picture that says he isn't ready yet to be depicted as an idiot or a living corpse (he keeps that for the stage act). There is a streak of wit working both ways in the picture, and much of it comes from the nature of his "library." For this is one of those pictures where you can read the titles of the books. There are several "sets," books in fine bindings with gold lettering on the spines, in real leather or mock. Even with the best shooting techniques, it is hard to tell one from the other. There's the World Book, fifteen volumes or so. There's a set of Hemingway. There's Norman Mailer's Marilyn, and The Two Mrs. Grenvilles. There's a thesaurus, a collection of pub signs, and Inside the KGB. It is catholic, I suppose, a literary equivalent of the other things we can see on his shelves -- the handcuffs, a brown paper bag, and one of those long picture frames with three empty ovals, as if Keith is still waiting for the faces to fill it.

When Leibovitz moves in, it is with a retinue and a serious budget. Maybe she brought the books with her, as props. I doubt it. I think Richards is still too opposed to the pompous (or he was in 1992) to let that happen -- but the setting here is sublime, as well as the curl of the lip that wonders if we think he'd ever read any of this stuff on his shelves. As a magazine picture, it is an illustration of a certain misunderstanding of libraries, or of text itself. Once upon a time magazine illustrations were simply that: amplifications of a text. But in Leibovitz's era, the "art" -- that is what they call it -- has infiltrated the ads. And why not? Sometimes they use the same subjects. And they create a massive envy or insecurity (in us) that only the purchase of the book can assuage.

Leibovitz lived through the time when the shift from illustration to "art" occurred. Who recalls the text that went with her picture of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, him naked clinging to her clothed tree, taken only hours before he was killed? And although Rolling Stone didn't appreciate it yet, the text was becoming redundant. That is one reason why Leibovitz's pictures have commanded a budget sometimes ten times the sum given to the text. Her pictures were so fulsome, so ravishing, so now. Beside them, the text was time-consuming, fussy, and nostalgic for the sort of exercises in judgment that subsided, say, with Claus von Blow, O.J. Simpson, and every famine about which chic guilt has usurped the real thing.

There is irony in that picture of Keith Richards, but now turn to Arnold Schwarzenegger on skis in a white t-shirt, so supreme in the snow-capped mountains that the photographer might have been Leni Riefenstahl. That picture says, Yes, that's me, and I like me like that, and fuck irony. And there is Nicole Kidman from a low angle in an empty Manhattan salon, her body spiraling in the same direction as the pile of white train that reaches up to her knees. That has the blaze of her insane confidence, as well as her love of posing for the still camera. Such pictures do not need a caption. They are the reaffirmation of the incontrovertible magnificence of celebrity, even if the real Kidman has a husband in and out of rehab while Arnold delivered his State of the State message on crutches -- because he broke a leg skiing in Colorado -- asking for universal medical coverage for California children.

Real celebrities have setbacks, of course. They fall, and sometimes they keep falling. Leibovitz remembers Demi Moore when she was something, and in a position to strut her pregnant belly naked on the cover of Vanity Fair. The magazine forgot Moore for a while, though she is back on the cover now, wrapped up so that just her killer look shows -- with a copy line (or, more precisely, a copy lie) about not growing older. But real celebrity is the moment when the match flares, and Leibovitz is most excited by people who have just burst into flame. And by the knowledge that if she is photographing them, then truly they are hits. If these are the "it people," she is the one who confers the "it," or so she thinks. These pictures are the stamp of a certain sort of certification, but they provide no insight. None at all, ever. In flattering self-image and glamorous affect, Leibovitz's photographs steadily ignore inner life. They seem almost terrified of inwardness.

Now, despite the range of her contentment, Leibovitz admits to something like frustration. She claims that for all her busyness she has one life, a single life that adds up: the person who does jobs for Vanity Fair or Vogue is not different from the person who photographs family, children, and friends. The book is filled with images of her family, which are scattered among the celebrity portraits. This suggests a certain incompetence about the deeper understanding of photographs. Leibovitz's book could have been assembled only by someone who has given very little thought to the traditions of writing on the nature of photography, some of it by her friend Susan Sontag. And so it is that this book ranges over all its miscellaneous subjects from the years 1990-2005.

There are pictures of her parents, her siblings, and their children -- at the beach, at home, in bed, on the way somewhere. They are printed large sometimes, double-page spreads, like the Kidman shot for Vogue. But they are black-and-white, and grainy, and spontaneous. I like them well enough -- but you know the limits of looking at another person's family album. These are snapshots, and they are willing to have their meanings private, and as memorials. They do not have anything like the aura and the neediness of celebrity. They say, Here are Mom and Dad, I shot them, they mean something to me. These are photographs like the ones we all take, to celebrate presence and appease absence, as markers that say, Yes, we were there together; look, you can see us all in one frame; and yes, the sun is bleeding in here and it's too dark there. But wouldn't it be vulgar and unfamilial to be perfect? After all, what else about our family life is perfect, beyond the fact that we have it?

When I say that these pictures are not very good, I mean to suggest only that the photographer did not notice any need for them to be good -- whereas the terrific, chilling finish on the magazine shots is loaded down with ambition and intention. Those pictures are as cumbersome, as slow and heavy in their own thick air as would-be knockouts sent by a punch-drunk exhausted fighter. Their light and color are perfect in a field where perfect can easily mean retouching and Photoshopping, to say nothing of those procedures in life by which celebrities seek to score an extra season of youth. The magazine shots are the work of a team -- not just on location, but also in the labs. But the snapshots are plainly Annie alone, and mercifully error-prone.

Compare the picture of Demi Moore pregnant for Vanity Fair with the picture of Leibovitz pregnant herself. They are ten years apart. Leibovitz stands in her bedroom, hands on hips, her head turned, her long hair loose. She is braced against the great jut of her womb. She wears pearl earrings, but she could be anyone, anywhere. She looks tough, determined, a little old for the business at hand -- she knows she lacks the great swag of emerald sateen robe and the vale of twilight that covered Moore's pubic area. (That was the cover, for Christ's sake.) Leibovitz is in black and white and her age (fifty-one) is not disguised, whereas Moore in her picture looks sculpted out of a light that is gold, amber, and skin tone. The serenity and the leanness of her face could even be Photoshopped. It looks, alas, all too real. For this woman does not look pregnant in her daily being. Tiredness is against her holy ghost. But exhaustion is Leibovitz's friend, and the redeemer of her picture.

The picture of Leibovitz herself pregnant is very touching. And it was taken by Susan Sontag. Much of this book has to do with Sontag. How perilous it is to venture such opinions, but just as I feel when I look at the movie Vivre Sa Vie that Jean-Luc Godard loved Anna Karina, I feel, when looking at this photograph, that Sontag loved Leibovitz. "I don't take a lot of purely personal pictures," Leibovitz writes in her short preface to the book. It was a habit that Sontag often remarked on, she adds. But in preparing this book, she realized that the period of this volume "is almost exactly the years I was with Susan."

What does "with Susan" mean? I don't mean to be intrusive, but the book does beckon us to behold, and to admire, this relationship. But it is haunted by ambiguity, at least in these pictures. What does it mean to be "with" someone? Marital ties far too easily assume that two people were "together" for decades, but some people married for a long time are not always, or often, "with" each other. This does not mean they are having affairs with other people. It means only that you can be technically "with" someone and quite indifferent to their inner being.

Plainly this was not so with Sontag and Leibovitz. There is undeniable love in some of these images. But then things get harrowing and complicated. Were they still "with" each other at the time of Sontag's dying, at the time of her death? I ask this because this book includes pictures that record Sontag's illness and death. These are not the pictures that get you onto Charlie Rose or American Masters, but there they are, and they are hideous. They represent a cold crossover of the two other strains of imagery in Leibovitz's book -- celebrity pictures and private pictures, "purely personal pictures."

There are pictures from 1998 of Sontag, still recognizable, in Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. In some of these images there is already a distress in the subject that makes you wonder if she knew she was being photographed. (The photographer does not say.) There are chemotherapy pictures a little later, and from 1999 there is a very powerful portrait of Sontag in a black sweater with silver hair. But that is not all. The illness returned. This was "much more harrowing, and I didn't take any pictures of her at all until the end." There are pictures from the Cancer Research Center in Seattle. And there are pictures later still, in New York, of Sontag dying, and then of Sontag dead on a mortuary table, where she is not recognizable. Even the most celebrated looks can dwindle at the end, and be destroyed by pain.

These pictures are distant and stricken, as well they might be. But an air of question sticks to them -- should Leibovitz be taking these pictures? It is far from clear that at the end she was "with" Sontag as she had been before. Grapple with this passage from the preface: "I forced myself to take pictures of Susan's last days. Perhaps the pictures completed the work she and I had begun together when she was sick in 1998. I didn't analyze it then. I just knew I had to do it." And this:

I began searching for photographs of her [Sontag] to put in a little book that was intended to be given to the people who came to her memorial service. The project was important to me, because it made me feel close to her and helped me to begin to say good-bye. I found so many things I didn't remember or perhaps had not even seen before. I also began looking at all the photographs I had taken of the rest of my family. My father had been ill for some time, and I had flown down to Florida to be with him after spending Christmas in the hospital with Susan. She died before I could get back. He died six weeks later.

So Leibovitz was busy and she was not quite with Sontag at the end. Some alteration in their relationship had occurred. But she does not mention this, as if access might be at issue. She told Charlie Rose that she doubted whether Sontag would have wanted the final pictures to be shown. I think that must be taken to mean that Leibovitz had no clearance for them.

I do not mean to be squeamish, or to say that pictures of people dying or in extremis are forbidden. But I see a shadow of guilt or doubt over these pictures, something that obscures or traduces love. And this makes the pictures morally vulnerable. It leaves them in danger of seeming like voyeuristic shots of death's moment, which is the most individualized, the most private, moment of all. Without consent, they seem to me unpublishable, and much more distressing than the photographer knows. Even with consent, considerations of taste and decency might have intervened.

So I am not convinced that it is all the same life, seamless or without a bump. Annie Leibovitz is a very modest photographer. Her skills are far exceeded by her access, her expenses, and the very confined "curiosity" of her employers. Alas, when she takes her "purely personal pictures," despite the welcome abandonment of finesse, the earlier problems remain. Photography, as Susan Sontag observed, is a very tricky art of appropriation, in which the photographer may too easily assume that the camera and the opportunity are responsible for what has been done. This is not so. The photographer did it. And if a thing has not been given, then sometimes it has to be stolen.


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