• Picture This

    Date posted: December 16, 2008 Author: jolanta
    In one of her many meditations on the taking of pictures, Susan Sontag
    wrote that “all photographs aspire to the condition of being memorable
    — that is, unforgettable.” Annie Leibovitz,
    Sontag’s lover before her death in 2004, says she doesn’t really “have
    a single favorite photograph” among those she’s taken; it’s her body of
    work, its “accumulation,” that gives her the most satisfaction. And yet
    “Annie Leibovitz at Work,” the latest of her books, makes a viewer
    realize how many of Leibovitz’s pictures have managed, individually, to
    fulfill the egoistic aspiration Sontag ascribed to all photographs. (The New York Times, December 12, 2008.)

    Image

    Thomas Mallon

    Image
    Courtesy of The New York Times.

    In one of her many meditations on the taking of pictures, Susan Sontag
    wrote that “all photographs aspire to the condition of being memorable
    — that is, unforgettable.” Annie Leibovitz,
    Sontag’s lover before her death in 2004, says she doesn’t really “have
    a single favorite photograph” among those she’s taken; it’s her body of
    work, its “accumulation,” that gives her the most satisfaction. And yet
    “Annie Leibovitz at Work,” the latest of her books, makes a viewer
    realize how many of Leibovitz’s pictures have managed, individually, to
    fulfill the egoistic aspiration Sontag ascribed to all photographs.

    Modestly proportioned, this new book is trim-sized more for the
    nightstand than the coffee table. Its photos are generally reproduced
    on a smaller scale than they were during their first appearances in
    splashy venues like Vanity Fair. The text, part memoir, part casual
    manifesto, is conveyed in an unpretentious, sometimes even choppy,
    style — “Athletes are proud of their bodies. They’ve worked very hard
    on them” — that derives from its being “based on conversations” between
    Leibovitz and her editor, Sharon DeLano.

    If the more general
    observations about photography in “At Work” don’t surprise, they do
    convince. They’re delivered by induction, set against the particular
    photos that taught Leibovitz her lessons. Among them: the camera really
    does love some people more than others; not just leggy Nicole Kidman
    but “gaunt, sinister” William Burroughs. When doing sports photography,
    “if you see the picture through the viewfinder, you’re too late.” (She
    got the hurdle, but not Edwin Moses.)

    Leibovitz is “not
    nostalgic about cameras” or even film, but “At Work” does display a
    kind of wistfulness for much of what she got to see over the last 40
    years, and even for some of what she just missed, like the Paris
    fashion shows of the 1960s, where “photographers and editors stayed up
    working around the clock and everyone got drunk and crazy and wild.”
    (Leibovitz did, it should be noted, get to go on tour with the Rolling Stones.) The author clings to a belief, reinforced by shooting the O. J. Simpson
    trial and its raucous surroundings, that still photographs, which
    invite contemplation, can even now compete with “the barrage of images
    on television.” (Being nearly as famous as some of her subjects hasn’t
    hurt Leibovitz: Judge Lance Ito, a fan, gave her special access to his
    courtroom.)

    What Leibovitz learned from her early magazine
    work, much of it for Rolling Stone, derived from on-the-job experience,
    not editorial direction. Shooting concerts was difficult because “you
    were at the mercy of the lighting people, who were usually on drugs.”
    The subjects could be too. After she told a writer she’d seen “vats of
    white powder” around Ike Turner when photographing him — and the
    information found its way into print — Turner called her: “Annie, this
    is Ike. How could you have done that? We have ways to take care of
    people like you.” Lesson learned? “I decided that from then on the
    writer’s story was his story and my story was my story.” Often her
    story needed no text at all: a 1975 photo of Arnold Schwarzenegger,
    naked in a hotel room after winning a body-building competition, makes
    him look as if he’s been turned to stone, a sort of muscle-bound Midas
    tricked by fate.

    Leibovitz avoids inflated claims for what she
    does and deflects compliments that her pictures have “captured someone”
    with a confirmed belief that a photograph can never get more than “a
    tiny slice of a subject.” Her famous shot of an extremely pregnant Demi Moore
    may have been a great magazine cover, but Leibovitz says it’s too
    awkward and constrained (the subject had to cover her breasts) to be “a
    good photograph per se.” Her self-criticisms are neither left-handed
    nor tormenting; she sees what’s wrong and, freshly instructed, moves
    on. Criticism of subjects is nowhere to be found: “There certainly are
    people who are a pain to work with. I’d be crazy to name them. You
    can’t be indiscreet in this business.”

    George Lois, the art director whose high-concept 1960s Esquire covers put Sonny Liston in a Santa hat and Andy Warhol
    in a can of soup, has had a longer influence on Leibovitz than he did
    on magazines in general. (Leibovitz deplores current cover designs for
    being safe and formulaic.) The conceptual covers she did for Rolling
    Stone — the Blues Brothers painted blue; Meryl Streep
    pulling at her own whitefaced visage — prefigured a technique (“placing
    my subject in the middle of an idea”) that carried over into the
    pictures she made for a long-running advertising campaign by American
    Express. Some of her best work illustrated the corporate claim that
    “Membership has its privileges”: Willie Shoemaker standing next to Wilt Chamberlain; John Cleese hanging from a tree; Ella Fitzgerald
    in a pose and outfit that for once allowed her to convey sexiness
    instead of perfect pitch. For these shoots, as always, Leibovitz did
    her “homework,” boning up on her subjects but then, in their presence,
    not making any special effort to put them at their ease. She has even
    resorted to a variant of Lieutenant Columbo’s just-one-more-thing
    approach to get what she wants: “As soon as you say it’s over, the
    subject will feel relieved and suddenly look great. And then you keep
    shooting.”

    Contrary to some press accounts, Queen Elizabeth did not storm out of her session with Leibovitz; she more or less stormed in,
    brisk and impatient. One of the resulting photographs, with Her Majesty
    in a huge cape against a wintry landscape, looks rather like the
    ultimate American Express ad. As it happens, the trees in the picture
    were shot on a Tuesday. The Queen, disinclined to go outdoors, was shot
    the next day, and the royal marriage of digital images was effected
    after that.

    Leibovitz made the transition to computerized
    imagery with some reluctance: digital photography seemed at first to
    require too many people and too much equipment on the set. But she has
    “learned to love” the new medium, which allows her to take fewer
    pictures and see what she’s getting as she gets it. With digital,
    photographers “can keep the image that used to exist only on the
    Polaroid” taken during the setup.

    Digital can also cater to
    celebrities’ schedules, allowing them to be shot separately for the
    same group pictures. As Leibovitz explains: “The picture of Helen Mirren and Judi Dench
    in the car” — part of a fictional, film-noir photo essay for Vanity
    Fair — “was made in two different places.” But to the viewer, the
    possibilities seem not so much endless as entropic; these complicated
    photo fantasies crammed with stars and costumes and layouts move beyond
    concept toward a kind of visual cacophony. The contrivance begins to
    control Leibovitz instead of the other way around, as is the case in
    her brilliant business as usual.

    “At Work” includes a picture
    of the photographer’s mother, Marilyn Leibovitz, shot in 1997. These
    days it “means more and more” to the daughter who took it, because of
    its honesty: “My mother is looking at me as if the camera were not
    there.” This is not a condition easily replicated when the photographer
    isn’t the subject’s flesh and blood, and it doesn’t obtain almost
    anywhere else in the book, which is fine, since Leibovitz’s work, apart
    from a 1990s foray into Sarajevo, has never really been about honesty.
    As “At Work” makes clear, it has been about performance and arrangement
    — of the highest and shiniest order. (The New York Times, December 12, 2008.)

    www.nytimes.com

     

    Comments are closed.