Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life
National Portrait Gallery, London
WHEN the American photographer Annie Leibovitz hit the headlines recently, it was not for her thoughtful and carefully composed images, but because of the casual way she approached photographing the Queen, when protocol demanded slightly more negotiation. The session, filmed for a television documentary, was subsequently given a melodramatic but inaccurate slant by the BBC and the episode became a cause celebre, producing profuse apologies all round.
Among other spin-offs, the fracas helped further promote the career of one of the most successful living photographers and this comprehensive exhibition of her work. Filling the cramped space of the National Portrait Gallery with 150 photographs, it is packed with images of famous public figures, as well as personal photographs of her family and close friends.
Adopting a chronological arrangement, the exhibition constructs a narrative of the artist’s private life set against the backdrop of her public image, following Leibovitz’s assertion that: “I don’t have two lives”. It makes for a lively juxtaposition, although virtually all the images are carefully composed with little left to chance or luck.
Leibovitz is best known for her portraits of well-known figures, often taken for commission for magazines such as Vanity Fair, a journal that has consistently paid attention to featuring work by respected photographers. With a great sense of theatre, Leibovitz’s portraits are a veritable role call of the great, the good and the famous. They include actors Jamie Fox, Daniel Day Lewis and Al Pacino. Nicole Kidman looks stunning in a pencil tight dress swathed in white light, while Brad Pitt casually reclines on a vast orange-coloured bed.
The world of art and architecture features such stars as Richard Avedon, Brice Marden, Philip Johnson, Chuck Close and Cindy Sherman. Highlights include dancers Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rob Besserer holding a dance position while walking on Cumberland Island beach, and Patti Smith lolling on a bed with her children, Jackson and Jesse.
Interspersed are Leibovitz’s personal photographs. These document the birth and childhood of her three daughters and the holidays they went on, the reunions she enjoyed, rites of passage with her parents, her extended family and close friends. The image of her father and her brother, My Brother Philip and My Father, Silver Spring, Maryland, 1988, standing side by side, without their shirts, their arms folded, facing the camera, echoes images taken in the Great Depression of the 1930s. Equally touching is the image Susan’s Shell Collection, a group of objects collected by Leibovitz’s lover, the writer Susan Sontag, who died of cancer.
By contrast, Leibovitz’s reportage work has a less measured, more instant feel. Featured assignments include searing reportage from the siege of Sarajevo in the early 1990s and the election of Hillary Clinton to the United States Senate. There are also landscapes taken in Monument Valley in the American West and in Wadi Rum in the Jordanian desert.
As one of the most celebrated photographers of our time, Annie Leibovitz has been making images that are by turn witty, powerful and moving. At one level, she has consistently recorded American popular culture since the early 1970s, when her photographs began appearing in Rolling Stone, creating what has come to be seen as a legendary body of work.
Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life 1990-2005 continues until February 1