Annie Leibovitz: Still life
She’s shot the Queen, Obama, Nelson Mandela, George W. Bush’s cabinet and countless celebrities, not to mention a famously intimate portrait of John Lennon, curled up naked against Yoko Ono, just hours before the singer was shot.
But even though her best known work features the kind of faces likely to grace the covers of Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, Annie Leibovitz has long resisted the label of celebrity photographer.
Still, there are some things she can’t ignore.
In her book, Annie Leibovitz At Work, she tells how she came to reluctantly accept the truth about some of her subjects: some people just have an innate sense of charisma.
Nicole Kidman is one. Johnny Depp and Cate Blanchett are others. Marilyn Monroe, definitely.
This week, ahead of a retrospective exhibition in Sydney of her work, Leibovitz laughs when asked about the elusive art of being photogenic.
``When I was younger I used to think they were lucky to be in my photographs,’’ she said. ``But then of course as I got older I guess I was lucky to be taking their picture.’‘
Her show, opening at the Museum of Contemporary Art on Friday, contains a deeply personal series of images. It’s called A Photographer’s Life: 1990-2005, and it takes us far beyond the glamour and beauty of Hollywood.
On the one hand, we see the familiar faces: Brad Pitt, Keith Richards, Al Pacino, Jim Carrey, Daniel Day Lewis, Hillary Clinton, Colin Powell, George W. Bush.
Then, among the atmospheric landscape shots and unsettling images of conflict in Sarajevo, she takes us behind the scenes of her own life with images of her children, her late partner Susan Sontag and her parents.
The exhibition came about following a period of great trauma for Leibovitz. In the space of a few weeks, both Susan and her father died, and she began to compile 15 years of her work into a book.
Some of the images show them at the ends of their lives, others at moments of joy. She describes this work as helping her through the grieving process, saying it was ``the closest thing to whom I am that I’ve ever done.’’ The result is an intimate, sometimes dark reflection on birth, death and daily life.
This week, over the phone from her New York studio, where she has been frantically putting the final touches on a photographic project and a new book while taking care of her daughter who recently fell ill, she recalled the circumstances surrounding the collection:
``Susan Sontag had just died, my father had just died, my children were being born, so there was this moment of a great understanding about life and death. My personal life seemed more important than my assignment work and when it came time to do the edit of these 15 years I was more interested in my personal life. And I thought what was interesting, as I started to look through the pictures, was that it wasn’t just my story it was every man’s picture, and I looked at it that way.’‘
It’s likely to be the last time Leibovitz does something like this too. She will continue taking photos of her family and friends, but those images will not go on public display.
``I really don’t think there are boundaries [between the private and the public],’’ she says. ``The only difference is what’s published and shown. I will continue to take pictures of my family but it will be for my family not for the public.’‘
There is, of course, the other side to Leibovitz’s career, the one where Arnold Schwarzenegger poses in a tight T-shirt in skis in snowy Idaho and a pregnant Demi Moore stands naked on the cover of Vanity Fair and sweet little Miley Cyrus wraps herself in a sheet.
According to Leibovitz, the nature of celebrity has certainly changed since she started work in the early 1970s. But talent, she says, will always break through.
``Although I’ve been in the trenches, so to speak, I feel like it’s such a different animal now,’’ she says of celebrity culture. ``But there always are great artists and actors, even great politicians and public people. In the midst of all the coo coo-ness there’s people doing great things and that’s what I’ve always been interested in. The people who do things well.’‘
In an interview with The Australian, she told how she preferred taking pictures of Obama than Bush because she prefers taking pictures of people she likes. ``It’s a little more fun for me photographing someone you care about or admire and like as opposed to the opposite.’‘
Then again, she learned long ago that it’s not necessary to like a person in order to take a nice photograph of them. Nor does she feel a need to put her subjects at ease, mainly because she doesn’t know how.
``I’m not really that kind of a portrait photographer,’’ she says. ``I do think there are photographers who really know how to do that, they’re social butterflies, but I just never really learned those good graces.’’
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