Thursday, February 1st, 2007

Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life, 1990 – 2005

The Brooklyn Museum
October 20, 2006-January 21, 2007

Annie Leibovitz Nicole Kidman 2003 Photograph © Annie Leibovitz, Courtesy of Vogue
Annie Leibovitz, Nicole Kidman 2003 Photograph © Annie Leibovitz, Courtesy of Vogue

“I don’t have two lives. This is one life, and the personal pictures and the assignment work are all part of it.” –Annie Leibovitz, A Photographer’s Life, 1990 – 2005

Why did so many people go to see Annie Leibovitz’s show at The Brooklyn Museum? First things first: celebrity is catnip to the general public, and the exhibition’s leitmotif was Nicole Kidman, 2003, Leibovitz’s over-the-top, golden-hued portrait of the actress standing tall in a beaded fishtail gown while the bright lights of a theater glare behind her.

It’s an image that any art director or celebrity photographer would die to author.Leibovitz has worked as both, and in this portrait she pushed movie star glamour beyond extravagance: Leibovitz and Kidman created an archetypal image of feminine genius. Everyone got it. The actress is majestic in her solitude and fairly beams sexual power.

Leibovitz’s extroverted style has its roots in the magazine industry. Her portraits of rock stars appeared in Rolling Stone during the 1970s, when she was in her 20s. The bulk of her career entailed assignments and because of that her work was appropriately identified with commercial photography. But the expert craft and wry sensibility of Richard Avedon lay behind it, even as color became the norm for a new era in mass culture. Avedon himself upheld a long tradition of social commentary through celebrity portraiture that dates from Nadar’s photographs of artists and writers in the 19th century.

Annie Leibovitz Susan at the House on Hedges Lane 1988 Photograph © Annie Leibovitz
Annie Leibovitz, Susan at the House on Hedges Lane 1988 Photograph © Annie Leibovitz

If Avedon provided the tools, it was Susan Sontag who gave Leibovitz a fresh sense of how she could use them as an autonomous artist. In retrospect, that a high-profile photographer of Leibovitz’s calibre should form an alliance with an intellectual as illustrious as Sontag is perfectly logical. After all, Walker Evans and James Agee formed an influential collaboration in the heyday of “documentary style” photography (Evans’s own term.) The turn of the 21st century twist is that Leibovitz and Sontag are women – and that all aspects of their personal, creative, and intellectual lives were intertwined during the fifteen-year period of their relationship.

Leibovitz’s knowing, “commercial” style stands out in a museum context. The best example is her witty color portrait of the Bush Administration, Cabinet Room(2001). A straight photograph and a public image, it’s also stupendously ironic. Bush, Rice, and the rest of them look like a band posing for a 1970s album cover. But the exhibition reveals that Leibovitz has mastered other modes. Her work shifts from creative service in the political and entertainment industries to photojournalism, as in Traces of the Massacre of Tutsi Schoolchildren and Villagers on a Bathroom Wall (1994), to tender family portraiture. Her soft-focus landscape photography of the American west and vast terrain in other locations includes a picture of Mt. Vesuvius – echoing Sontag’s novel The Volcano Lover.

Maverick was the word that came to mind again and again as I viewed Leibovitz’s exhibition. By taking an autobiographical approach toward the work that she produced during the time she and Sontag were together, she kept its weave of art and life intact. But in the midst of strong personalities, the work as an artistic statement remains Leibovitz’s alone. Her accessible, extraordinary show –scheduled to travel far and wide – demonstrates that this artist changed the status quo by being herself. Which is to say by holding fast to the prism of her very soul.