The Observer, Oct 2006
Looking for life beyond the stars: America’s most famous photographer has shot Hollywood’s A-list and Presidents, but her new book of photos chronicles her more intimate side, including painful images of the slow death of her partner, Susan Sontag.
(Also read at The Observer)
Something’s bugging Annie Leibovitz. The most high-profile celebrity photographer of her day may, after 36 years, be tiring of celebrities. It struck her while she was choosing the shots for her latest book and exhibition, a memoir in photographs entitled A Photographer’s Life, 1990-2005 (currently at the Brooklyn Museum, but moving to the National Portrait Gallery in London next year).
Leibovitz was in her studio, a big barn in upstate New York, where she had the pictures up on two walls, one marked “Personal” and the other “Assignments”. For Leibovitz, assignments come by way of Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and Vogue and in the shape of world leaders and moguls, movie stars and rock stars. And she has shot some of the most iconic celebrity images of the last 30 years – the naked and pregnant Demi Moore on the cover of Vanity Fair in 1991, a nude Sylvester Stallone posing as Rodin’s Thinker, Whoopi Goldberg in a bath of milk, Roseanne Barr mud-wrestling.
“I could barely look at the assignment wall,” she told an interviewer. She insists she’s still proud of the work; she just wishes that it ‘had more meaning, had more substance’.
Given the personal upheaval of recent years, her perspective is perhaps not so surprising. In December 2004, Susan Sontag, with whom she’d been in a relationship for the previous 15 years, died of acute myelogenous leukaemia. Soon after, Leibovitz’s father died of lung cancer, aged 91. A few months later, Leibovitz had twin girls via a surrogate mother. (She had given birth to her first daughter in 2001, at the age of 51, having become pregnant with donated sperm.)
The idea to compile a retrospective of her work emerged out of this flurry of births and deaths, the loss of Sontag in particular. A Photographer’s Life began with Leibovitz going through old pictures for Sontag’s memorial service.
The retrospective dates back to 1990, the year she and Sontag became close. Quite how close is open to speculation. Neither referred to the other as a partner or lover, much to the irritation of some gay activists. They never lived with each other, but their apartments were close and she has said that of all the stories A Photographer’s Life tells, “with Susan, it was a love story”.
Certainly, Sontag’s influence was huge. As a subject, she makes for some of the most disturbing images. Leibovitz chronicled the ravages of her sickness. But she was also an editor for this project, albeit from beyond the grave, according to Leibovitz. ‘I looked at this collection as though Susan was behind me and had a say,’ she has said.
They met in 1988, when Leibovitz took publicity pictures for Sontag’s book, Aids and its Metaphors. Sontag, 55, told Leibovitz, 39, that she was ‘a good photographer, who could be better’. Coming from anyone else, it might have been rude; at the time, Leibovitz was already one of the most high-profile and highly paid photographers in the world. She was chief portrait photographer for Vanity Fair and had already spent more than a decade shooting covers for Rolling Stone, including her most famous one – the shot of a naked John Lennon clinging to a clothed Yoko, just hours before he was assassinated.
But Leibovitz revered Sontag. She’d read Sontag’s On Photography as a student and Sontag’s encouragement to become better was exactly what she wanted to hear. As their relationship flourished, they travelled extensively to Jordan, Egypt, Italy, Paris – several of their holiday snaps make it into the book. However different their worlds may have seemed at the outset – Sontag the intellectual and bohemian, Leibovitz the big money portrait photographer – it was as though they completed each other. Together, they became the core of a tightknit and rarefied New York circle including the likes of media power couple Tina Brown and Harold Evans and Michael Douglas.
Under Sontag’s influence, Leibovitz broke free from her celebrity shell and went to Sarajevo in 1993, where she took pictures of, among other things, a baby being born without anaesthetic in the middle of a siege. Leibovitz considers it some of her best work and she admits that she would never have gone unless Sontag hadn’t been there already, directing a production of Waiting for Godot.
But Sarajevo is only a small part of A Photographer’s Life. No sooner had she returned from shooting a bloody smear on the road where a boy had been blown off his bicycle than, as she says, she ‘had to remember which side to shoot
Barbra Streisand’s face from’. This is what appears to niggle her – no one thinks of Sarajevo when they hear “Leibovitz”. They think of celebrity, wealth and being on first name terms with Bill and Hillary, Steven, Angelina, George, Harvey. They think of the establishment, of power, the elite.
It wasn’t always so. Leibovitz started out at the cutting edge of counterculture in the late 60s. Born in Connecticut, she studied photography at the San Francisco Art Institute, where, at 19, she took a photograph of Allen Ginsberg smoking a joint on an anti-Vietnam march. A friend urged her to submit it to Rolling Stone and it became the cover of the June 1970 issue. By the age of 24, she was Rolling Stone’s chief photographer. At 25, she was on Nixon’s helicopter as he fled the White House. A year later, she toured America with the Rolling Stones, emerging with a cocaine habit that took five years to shake off. And in 1980 she took that famous shot of Lennon.
This year, however, her most high-profile celebrity shot was of Tom Cruise’s baby Suri for the July cover of Vanity Fair. The arc from Allen Ginsberg to baby Suri charts not just Leibovitz’s transition from counterculture into the mainstream (Leibovitz has also shot campaigns for American Express and Gap), but also the galloping mania of celebrity culture, a trend in which Leibovitz has been more than just a casual observer.
The Leibovitz style is perfectly tailored to these celebrity-fuelled times. While Richard Avedon shot his subjects before plain backgrounds, eliciting emotion from them in the instant of the exposure, Leibovitz deliberately conceals her subjects behind costume and concept – celebrities become sculpture, theatrical players. Her interest is not in the unguarded moment, but the staged moment; not the inner life, but the outer image.
Certainly, Leibovitz isn’t prone to platitudes about photography “capturing the essence.” Instead of stripping away the myths that envelop celebrities, she exaggerates them. On occasion, she is like the court painters of old – wealth and beauty are enhanced and egos are nourished. At no point is any expense spared: her shoots famously command enormous budgets and fleets of panicking assistants. She herself has charged more than $100,000 per day.
The archetypal Leibovitz extravaganza is the group shot, the feast of stars artfully composed into one perfectly lit tableau. The more stars, the more assistants and the more fuss, the greater the sense of occasion. And the more important both celebrity and photographer appear. Most stars are happy to do more or less whatever Annie asks. She’s had Kate Winslet repeatedly dunked in a tank of water, Clint Eastwood bound by ropes. But Leibovitz makes you look good.
Not surprisingly, she has her detractors. Jurgen Teller, a photographer whose sparse, incidental style is the polar opposite of Leibovitz’s, has described her work as “glamorising celebrity. She’s a very American photographer in that way. Her work seems to be about flattery and positivity. It’s an old-fashioned approach that harks back to the golden age of Hollywood portraits.”
By contrast, her supporters see an artist subtly commenting, even defining, the times she lives in. Photographer and author Sam Jones describes Leibovitz as a pioneer: “At some point in the 1980s, photography turned from being an exchange between two people into an event. I think Annie Leibovitz was partly responsible for creating a style in which photography became a chance to make everything larger than life.”
Leibovitz seems to be veering away from the outlandish celebrity event. As she put together A Photographer’s Life, she said she found herself “totally taken over by the personal work; I thought it was so strong and so moving.”
They make a disjointed whole – the outlandish celebrity portraits alongside quiet, private photos of her desperately sick best friend or her family comforting her just-widowed mother. It would seem that after her extraordinarily lucrative career portraying and shaping the world of celebrity, Leibovitz is seeking artistic rather than commercial satisfaction.
Sontag was often contemptuous of the celebrity culture that gave Leibovitz such a glittering career. And whenever the photographer suggested she might abandon the celebrity work for something more meaningful, her friend would chide her. She recalls: “She would say, ‘Stop complaining! You know you’re not going to leave this!’ And she’s right.”