Thoughts on the Exhibition, Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life, 1990–2005, 10/13/2007 to 1/13/2008, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC
It has been a week since I’ve seen it, but I still can’t get the Annie Leibovitz exhibit out of my head. This comes as a surprise to me, considering that I wasn’t that interested in seeing the show to start with. The famous images from Leibovitz’s celebrity portrait oeuvre – Mick Jagger shirtless on a hotel bed; Demi Moore, naked and pregnant, on the cover of Vanity Fair – never thrilled me. I could see the photographer’s technical skill, and her sense of composition, but the photos themselves just didn’t interest me. I thought of them as visual fast food.
On the other hand, I knew there would be photos of the late Susan Sontag, Leibovitz’s longtime partner and one of my personal heroes. (See the archives, below, for my essay on the death of this great writer and thinker, possibly and tragically the last of our country’s public intellectuals) Plus, my pal Sara, who has great aesthetic taste, was nudging me. So I went, and I’m so glad. I got, among other things, a reminder of why one’s preconceptions are so, well, lame.
One of the most written–about aspects of this show (and its accompanying book) is Leibovitz’s decision to include personal and family photos mixed in chronologically with her professional work. The highlight or, I guess you could say, the leading character of the family snapshots was, for me, Leibovitz’s mother, whose wide, wise, skeptical face I cannot get out of my head. She reminds me of the great actresses of my own mother’s era – remember Colleen Dewhurst? Olivia de Haviland? – but without the grandeur. I thought, no wonder Leibovitz is a portrait photographer. She grew up looking at one of the best faces in the world.
Which leads us to Susan Sontag. Even in those photos where she’s only a fraction of the composition, surrounded by bookshelves or on a beach, she’s the center of energy in every frame she’s in. Which makes the photos of Sontag’s first and second, fatal, bout with cancer all the harder to take. I remember being shocked, when I read about it, about Leibovitz including photos of Sontag’s corpse dressed for burial in this exhibit. But after everything you go through, that photo seems fitting, an answer to the question that kept running through my mind, looking at the photos of Sontag in Paris, in Sarajevo, in Petra: How can someone so alive be gone?
But what I keep remembering are three images, displayed in separate rooms at the show, but put together in sequence in my mind. Each is of a woman, and each involves that classic odalisque pose – one arm draped across the breasts, half–cupping, half–concealing, and the other across the lower belly.
First, I see Liebovitz’s photo of the young, devastatingly beautiful Cindy Crawford, standing like Eve in the Garden, a snake draped across her shoulders. The next is, I must confess, the Demi Moore pregnancy shot I had come think of as symbolic of everything wrong with celebrity culture in general and Vanity Fair magazine in particular. But the next is Susan Sontag naked – see the difference? The other two were nude – in a bath after her first cancer treatments. This last photo was hard to look at. But it also gave the others a context. I saw how each connected to the other. Call it the phases of the wheel, call it maiden, mother, crone, call it what you will – those three photos, taken together, told a story, a series of stories. I saw how each said something about being a woman, public, private, old, young, fertile and past it, knowing and not. And it is that series that took Leibovitz, for me, out of the category of “celebrity photographer” and into the category of “artist.”