Monday, November 03, 2008

Annie Leibovitz: a Photographer's Life, 1990 - 2005

National Portrait Gallery
Through 1 February 2009

After touring the USA, Leibovitz's exhibit arrives in London. It starts, puzzlingly, with images of US Olympic athletes, some of them quite Riefenstahlian, such as the diver frozen against the sky. Then it moves on to some celebrities and landscapes. And isn't that Susan Sontag?

What does this jumble mean? Well, the answer lies very much at the end, in the room given over to her proofs. While leafing through her work in 2005, she realised she'd separated it into commercial and personal. It was then that she decided to fuse the two into one exhibit, the personal and profession merged to illustrate her one life. Interesting.

Why in 2005? As documented in her photos, death had recently claimed her father and her partner Susan Sontag, while Leibovitz had recently become a mother. Clearly, some reflection was in order and assembling a book and exhibit was part of the photographer's grieving process.

And so this mess of an exhibit begins to make some sense, because it is difficult to understand otherwise why one would want to juxtapose shots of Scarlett Johansson pouting with shots of Sontag being treated in hospital. In truth, an exhibit of the personal photos would have been much more enlightening. But perhaps not so marketable.

The shots of Sontag, the kids and Leibovitz's parents, especially the ones in 35mm black and white, are intimate, personal and powerful. By contrast, the Vanity Fair covers and other assignments are glossy, colour, large format, and ultimately hollow.

Leibovitz herself comments that she doesn't consider herself a great studio photographer and yet this is what she's become known for: the big Hollywood assemblages with armies of assistants--more Cecil B Demille productions than portraits. So, why pursue that line? Surely, at this stage, she can't need the money or the kudos. [2009 edit: Ah, but maybe she does.]

It's also troubling to note that it's only after Sontag's death that Leibovitz feels able to acknowledge their relationship. In photo after photo, whether in Jordan, Paris or New York, Sontag appears, mostly not named but quite visible. And the shots of her sprawled on couches or in bed, draped in rumpled sheets, speak volumes about the intimacy between them.

But in life? Never a mention, except as the "close friend". The saddest photo in this collection is the one that's missing: the one of Sontag and Leibovitz together.

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