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 entirely from the context in which it appears, from its size vis-à-vis the viewer, and from its position in space: on the museum or gallery wall, or in a book. The glamorous celebrity photographs for which Annie Leibovitz is best known, which appeared originally in or on the cover of Vanity Fair, appear, on the museum wall, in a vast white space usually designated for “art,” ludicrously overblown and synthetic, glossy and flat as movie posters; yet in the book, surrounded by Leibovitz’s low-keyed, candid, “artless” personal photographs, the identical images, greatly reduced in size, function as the memoirist intends them: as specimens of her professional work, bulletins from a distant country. The much-hyped celebrity photographs of Demi Moore, Nicole Kidman, Brad Pitt, and Sylvester Stallone (in the nude, muscled, and headless) are most successful as magazine photography, scaled to the page, or on the cover, where amid mundane or trashy newsstand rivals, Leibovitz’s meticulously staged portraits glow like gems; exposed on the museum wall, the famous cover of the very pregnant Demi Moore seems no more than a parody of Hollywood self-exhibitionism on the part of an actress of unexceptional talent in collusion with the buzz-minded magazine (at that time edited by Tina Brown) and a high-tech photographer who routinely employs a crew of assistants and much equipment for one of her colossally expensive “shoots.”
Enormous brooding photographs of such celebrities as Mick Jagger (posed topless, on an unmade bed, with cinched-in waist and darkened lips), Brad Pitt (posed sprawled atop a rumpled bed in a Vegas hotel, in a gaudy striped shirt and what appear to be faux-ocelot-skin pants and cowboy boots; see illustration on page 20), and baby-faced dreamboat Leonardo DiCaprio (posed with a swan cradled in his arms and the swan’s neck looped about his own neck: live swan? stuffed swan?) exude an air of comical inflation on the museum wall, while in the book, reduced to something like human scale, they might be read as individuals who have succumbed to garish fantasies about themselves.
Some of the celebrity photographs verge upon kitsch caricature, like the portrait of a fatuous-looking Jack Nicholson gripping a golf club, in a wind-ruffled bathrobe and dark glasses, reacting as if he’s surprised by the camera; and the reclining B-movie pose of the young actress Scarlett Johansson in a garish Hollywood glamour costume and abbreviated satin panties. The celebrity photographs are usually portraits in isolation, as if the condition of celebrityhood is self-enclosed, autistic; where two celebrities are photographed together, like the dark-garbed Johnny Depp slung upon the naked body of the “supermodel” Kate Moss on an unmade bed in the Royalton Hotel, they seem to be two exhibitionists who have found each other, in a display of sexual intimacy for the benefit of the photographer looming over them.
The effect of a sequence of such photographs is numbing, if not exasperating: for all her skill, the photographer has made no attempt to “reveal” character but merely to expose or exploit fantasies. In an interview in 7 Days, Leibovitz acknowledges that she was barely able to look at her commercial work when it was on display in her studio in preparation for A Photographer’s Life. While insisting that she is still proud of the work, she expresses the wish that “it had more meaning, more substance.”
It is a curious fact: the more you ponder Annie Leibovitz’s high-tech commercial work, the less you see in it; viewer, celebrity, and photographer come to seem crushed together, suffocated in nonmeaning like Laocoön in the grip of the serpent.
On the museum wall, these photographs predominate; in the book, they are bracketed by far more interesting personal material like pictures—to use Leibovitz’s modest term—from her trip to Sarajevo in 1993 with Susan Sontag, where the women met with editors of the newspaper Oslobodjenje, and of the photographer’s country places in rural Rhinebeck and Clifton Point, New York. (In the book, as distinct from the museum exhibition, upstate New York with its densely wooded hills, misty ponds, and vistas romantically empty of human figures functions as a much-needed contrast to the claustrophobia of the studio shoot.)
Leibovitz includes several panoramic photographs of the ruins of September 11 followed immediately, and unabashedly, by a photograph of an enormously pregnant fifty-one-year-old Leibovitz (taken by Susan Sontag) and delivery room photographs of the birth of Leibovitz’s daughter Sarah in October 2001. The symbolic meaning is blunt and yet appropriate: thousands of people have died in the World Trade Center terrorist attack, there is death in the world, but Annie Leibovitz’s first daughter has been born, and the lineage that includes Leibovitz’s admirable parents Marilyn and Samuel will continue.
Harshly criticized by the New York Times art critic Roberta Smith both for the “pedestrian” nature of her personal photographs and for her exhibitionism, Leibovitz would seem to have little choice about including in her memoir such intimate material in which the “public” and the “private” intersect. How dark, how suffocating in its images of debilitating disease and death A Photographer’s Lifewould have been without the irresistible “baby pictures” of Leibovitz’s three daughters! Recall Henry David Thoreau, a Transcendentalist predecessor: “I should not speak so much about myself if there were any body else whom I knew as well.”
Unguarded, unposed, and painfully intimate photographs of a desperately ill Susan Sontag in hospital beds in New York City and in Seattle, in the last days of her life unrecognizable, face ravaged and stomach grotesquely bloated, appear, on the museum wall, too close by the glamour celebrity photographs of “perfect” bodies not to be cruelly diminished by them. In the public space that is the museum wall, viewed by a neutral observer who knows nothing of the photographer’s longtime relationship to Sontag, such raw work reads like an exploitation of the subject’s helplessness that would outrageously violate Sontag’s privacy if snapped by paparazzi who’d breached hospital security to get to her room: the viewer recoils in dismay, revulsion. Yet in the book, where many pages of memoirist material involving Sontag and Leibovitz and their years of traveling together have prepared the viewer for such intimacy, these photographs of an aging woman in physical distress, like those of the deceased Sontag on a bier in a Fortuny-like dress, take on another, far more nuanced and poignant significance:
I forced myself to take pictures of Susan’s last days. Perhaps the pictures completed the work she and I had begun together when she was sick in 1998. I didn’t analyze it then. I just knew that I had to do it…. I cried for a month [while editing the pictures]. I didn’t realize until later how far the work on the book had taken me through the grieving process. It’s the closest thing to who I am that I’ve ever done.*
The photographs of Leibovitz’s that work most successfully in the museum exhibition are those of bodies in motion: an astonishing leap by the (unclothed) dancer Bill T. Jones, another leap by the silhouetted Michael Jordan, and close-ups of the beautifully sculpted bodies of members of the US Olympic athletic teams including swimmers, gymnasts, runners, and pole-vaulters, whose heroic exploits seem to transcend merely personal identity, as with the sculpted human forms of antiquity. A close-up of the elderly Eudora Welty showing the writer vacant-eyed and seemingly without affect is a cruel exposure of Welty in an unguarded moment; close-ups of the elderly, seemingly moribund William Burroughs exude an air of something like primal terror, and human resignation in the face of such terror, as if the prankster Burroughs were peering at the viewer through the eye holes of his own death mask. There is a witty juxtaposition of President George W. Bush and his advisers followed immediately by Michael Moore and his assistants, who would mercilessly lampoon Bush and his crew in the satirical film Fahrenheit 9/11; and there are close-up portraits of Nelson Mandela, Merce Cunningham, Joseph Brodsky, Richard Avedon, Colin Powell, Daniel Day-Lewis, and a craggy, bewhiskered Willie Nelson that gain from the exalted heroic treatment. The museum exhibition ostentatiously concludes with a separate room containing eight gigantic landscapes that loom above the viewer with the portentousness of greeting card pictures monstrously inflated; yet in the book, accompanying the starkly intimate photographs of the last days of Susan Sontag and of the elderly Sam Leibovitz, these identical images, in particular an Ansel Adams–inspired photograph of birch trees taken in Ellenville, New York, are beautifully understated and “transcendental.”
As a book, A Photographer’s Life, 1990–2005 has the heft and intransigence of a grave marker. As befits a dream sequence, its pages are unnumbered; maddeningly, there is no table of contents, no index. Should you wish to locate certain of Leibovitz’s photographs, you must page through the book, turning these enormous pages repeatedly. Still, where the museum exhibition offers, as its poster proclaims, a sensational experience, or more precisely, to employ Samuel Johnson’s remark about the metaphysical poets, an experience of violently yoked-together images, few of them very deep or abiding, the book offers a protracted and unmistakable emotional experience. The moral of the exhibition is implicit in its staging: celebrity trumps family, public trumps private, glamour trumps the quotidian. But the book, by rearranging images and bringing them into the same approximate scale, tells a very different story, of the eclipsing of the public/professional life by the artist’s private life: the arduous but spiritually restorative act of memorialization. In this version, the “offensive” photographs of loved ones in extremisare necessary components of one’s own suffering; the dying individual is a part of oneself, reluctantly surrendered to death. Where an unsympathetic observer might recoil from what appears to be the ghoulish avidity with which the photographer takes “pictures” of her dying, and dead, loved ones, now corpses from which life has vanished, the sympathetic observer might interpret the act as homage, akin to a descent into death: the primitive, instinctual, visceral initial refusal to acknowledge the finality of death. The unsympathetic observer resents being forced into the position of voyeur; the sympathetic observer is willing to be forced into the position of a fellow voyager.
Granted that the memoirist impulse is fundamentally narcissistic and that the memoirist is obliged to make much of human experiences—losses of loved ones, births of babies, happy family reunions, sorrowful graveyard scenes—that are common to us all, the effect, in the hands of some practitioners, is an art that can speak to others. Though a project’s range may be narrow, its roots can go deep. In On Photography, Susan Sontag remarks: “As the fascination that photographs exercise is a reminder of death, it is also an invitation to sentimentality.” But “sentimentality” may be the risk that the more reckless and more aggrieved among us must take in the pursuit of the elusive memoirist vision.
January 11, 2007
Though the photographs of Susan Sontag in extremis will strike some observers, including this reviewer, as needlessly unsparing, taken at a time when the subject can scarcely have been aware of the photographer’s presence, and could not have given permission to the photographer, it is clear from Annie Leibovitz’s thoughtful commentary that she sees the inclusion of such photographs as enhancing, and not diminishing, her subject: “I edited this book with [Susan Sontag] in mind, as if she were standing behind me, saying what she would like to see in it.” Elsewhere, quoted in a Newsweek cover story, Leibovitz sounds less certain: “I think that Susan would be really proud of those pictures—but she’s dead. Now if she were alive, she would not want them published. It’s really a difference. It’s really strange.” See “Through Her Lens,” Newsweek, October 2, 2006. ↩