Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer's Life, 1990–2005
All photographs are memento mori.
—Susan Sontag,On Photography
Ours is an age of memoir—inevitably, faux memoir: the highly selective and enhanced employment of “real” persons, events, and settings in the creation of a text; or, in the case of Annie Leibovitz’s massive A Photographer’s Life, 1990–2005, a text with photographs arranged to suggest an elegiac narrative of loss, rebirth, and spiritual transcendence. After the death of her longtime companion Susan Sontag in December 2004—depicted here in harrowing, painfully graphic images some observers may find offensive—Leibovitz set herself the task of compiling photographs for a memorial book which gradually evolved into a larger memoir of the previous fifteen years of the photographer’s life: “Going through my pictures to put this book together was like being on an archeaological dig,” she says in her introduction.
Initially, the memoir was going to include only personal photographs, encompassing the lingering illnesses and deaths of Sontag and of Samuel Leibovitz, the photographer’s father, who died in January 2005, but the project grew in size, scope, and ambition, to include highly stylized commercial work originally commissioned by such glossy publications as Condé Nast Traveler, Vogue, and Vanity Fair. As if to defend herself against the charge of exploiting her commercial work, with its notable emphasis upon such celebrities as Brad Pitt, Nicole Kidman, Demi Moore, Johnny Depp, and Kate Moss, to draw attention to the more modest personal material, Leibovitz has said: “I don’t have two lives. This is one life, and the personal pictures and the assignment work are all part of it.”
In the Brooklyn Museum exhibition of 197 photographs, most but not all included in the book, the glitzy, theatrically staged celebrity portraits are given central attention while the smaller, black-and-white personal photographs, many of Leibovitz’s extended family, are on the margins; the Brooklyn Museum poster for the exhibition is a reproduction of Leibovitz’s Voguephotograph of Nicole Kidman as a Hollywood fantasy concoction, while the cover of the book consists of shadowy, somber, resolutely unglamorous photographs of Annie Leibovitz in repose, taken by Susan Sontag, and a sequence of mist-shrouded Venice landscapes.
Where the exhibition is high-decibel, self-aggrandizing, and frequently meretricious, the book is subdued, meditative, and intimate; where the exhibition is aggressively glamorous, the book yields small, subtle moments of humanity, particularly in close-ups of the photographer’s parents, who emerge as distinct and admirable personalities. Though none of Leibovitz’s intensely personal photographs of individuals from her private life, including her three very young daughters Sarah, Susan, and Samuelle, rises to the level of the intimate memoirist art of her contemporaries Emmet Gowin, Sally Mann, and Nan Goldin (whose Ballad of Sexual Dependency would seem to have been a strong influence), or to the level of her friend and mentor Richard Avedon (whose photographs of his dying father have become classics of twentieth-century photography), these are poignant and touching, resolutely unpretentious “pictures” of ordinary life.
The photographic image would seem to be the most chameleon-like of all images, deriving meaning almost…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.