Annie Leibovitz’s reckless candor

The renowned photographer's snapshots of her partner Susan Sontag and of her family, exhibited for the first time, are shocking in their intimacy -- but they should have stayed inside that shoe box.

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Annie Leibovitz's reckless candor

Somewhere at the back of our closets, in shoe boxes or plastic bins, we all have stacks of these snapshots: pale thighs and juice boxes and striped umbrellas on a sandy beach; a rumpled bed and a view from an anonymous window; poses by the lake at a cousin’s wedding, candids out of focus or ill-framed. Even as we shoot them, most are forgotten — and as anyone who’s suffered through someone else’s endless slide show knows, that’s usually for the best. Photographs are great hyperbolists, capable of convincing us that, with the simple push of a button, a mundane moment is something worth memorializing. Still, even the most obsessive shutterbugs usually know that the only people who care about these images are those who lived the captured moments or loved the people who did.

But when you’re a professional photographer, courted by museums and celebrities — indeed, a celebrity yourself — and your images are splashed on glossy covers around the world, perhaps it’s harder to know when to keep your shoe boxes sealed. That was what I concluded, anyway, upon viewing “A Photographer’s Life: 1990-2005,” the much-heralded exhibition of Annie Leibovitz’s work now on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The show, which is scheduled for a major international tour over the next year, and the accompanying coffee-table book, recently published by Random House, present an expansive and ambitious 15-year retrospective of the well-known photographer’s work. Though replete with Leibovitz’s signature Hollywood portraits and high-profile assignments for Vanity Fair and American Express, this exhibit breaks with the photographer’s past shows by giving equal weight to both her famous commercial work and images drawn from Leibovitz’s private collection of personal projects and snapshots. On one wall you find a sultry shot of Scarlett Johansson in sequins and leopard skin, on another a candid of Leibovitz’s young daughter, Sarah, in her car seat and Halloween face paint.

The years covered by “A Photographer’s Life” were tumultuous ones for Leibovitz, in which she not only traveled across continents on assignments and welcomed three children into the world, but also lost a parent and her longtime lover, the critic and novelist Susan Sontag, to cancer. If ever there was an antithesis to Leibovitz’s airbrushed glamour shots, the images of Sontag are it, made during the last few days of her illness, and finally, after her death. Swollen and scarred, lying prostrate in her bed, Sontag suffers mightily in front of Leibovitz’s lens, a reality that is especially hard to reconcile when one remembers how preening and proud Sontag could be in life.

One senses that in what was surely a time of great pain, Leibovitz took retreat in the role of photographer, or more precisely, in the purposefulness that can come from bearing witness. But conceived in conflict and stripped of the commercial artifice that usually cloaks her work, Leibovitz’s Sontag images — as well as some previously unseen journalistic work including shots taken in the bloody streets of Sarejevo — suggest another kind of unseemly striving. These are Annie as artist, bared and raw. Grainy and gray, their vérité style studiously serious, the pictures insist: I did not look away. But diary or documentary, for whom were these records really meant?

There is a great distinction between a photographer who shoots pictures of her family in a snapshot aesthetic, and one who simply takes snapshots, just as there is a difference between a writer who composes a memoir and one who keeps a journal. While a diarist records the events of the day, a memoirist decisively narrates the story of a life, and in doing so creates meaning from what would otherwise be fragments. Somewhere in her photos’ journey from the shoe box to the white gallery walls, Leibovitz would have been well served to consider frankly on what side of that line they fell. These images may have comforted her — and they may draw a crowd by proffering a glimpse into the private world of a public personality — but mere candidness is not enough to give them meaning.

Seeing her life’s images laid before her, in all their multiplicity, was clearly cathartic for Leibovitz. “This show came out of a moment of grief … discovering these images was like going on an archaeological dig,” she told her audience at the exhibition opening. “The [family pictures] meant so much more to me than the assignment work in that moment.” But if healing was her goal, why not let the pictures stay strung up on the walls of the barn in upstate New York where she edited the work — and where she says she played Rosanne Cash’s CD “Black Cadillac”at full volume and cried for a month?

Instead, she has offered them up to the public, so it seems safe to assume Leibovitz’s aspirations are something closer to art. In the introduction to her book, she explains, “I don’t have two lives. This is one life, and the personal pictures and the assignment work are all part of it.” As a conceit, that rationale may add up, but its implications are vexing nonetheless. Whether one is a photographer, a journalist or an accountant, the border between our professional and personal selves is one that requires constant navigation. All of us have just “one life.” Leibovitz may be an accomplished image-maker, but the context of professional accomplishments hardly seems enough to transform her otherwise ordinary snapshots into art.

“A Photographer’s Life” engages the mind only as it confuses. It’s impossible to walk through the galleries of the Brooklyn Museum — or thumb through the widely available catalog from the show — without asking oneself why Leibovitz included four pictures of her parents in their cluttered Florida kitchen, her father seated at the table looking down, and her mother, square and barefooted in a bathing suit, standing with her face to the stove? Leibovitz says that she designed the four-image series, just one of many that pepper the exhibit and the book, because the “flow of images” is more true to real life than a singular shot. But to the skeptical observer, the series format just seems like a crutch — an attempt to give a sense of weightiness to work too weak to stand on its own.

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In grainy black-and-white, and printed at a much smaller scale than the celebrity pictures, they make odd little neighbors to George W. Bush and Brad Pitt. Her commercial work is crisp and confident — the sense of composition flawless, her colors saturated, figures practically gilded. Indeed, the singular gift of Leibovitz’s lens has always been to magnify whatever bright light was before it, whether an Olympic swimmer, a Hollywood socialite or a head of state. But the selections from her personal trove feel plagued by indecision. Take one of these shots and stick it in your own amateur album, and you’d flip past it without missing a beat.

Leibovitz is not the first photographer to have featured her family on museum walls, but those who have done it well succeed largely because, though personal, their work seemed a seamless extension of their other professional endeavors behind the lens. Though peopled by friends and relatives, transcendent family photographs are not just the records of a clan, but also proof of the magic that sometimes happens in an artist’s world, when everyday life merges with inspiration.

In 1950s Chicago, Harry Callahan humanized images that might otherwise have seemed coldly formal by including his wife, Eleanor, and daughter Barbara in his spare landscapes of street and sea. Forty years later, Sally Mann’s infamous series “Immediate Family” shook up audiences by putting a dark, suggestive spin on the traditional snapshot. Mann’s images, like miniature gothic dramas, depicted her three young children in various states of costume, undress, injury and play inside the family’s community in rural southwestern Virginia. [Full disclosure: My admiration for Mann is genuine, but I'm not entirely impartial, having once worked as her assistant.] Mann called her subjects “ordinary things every mother has seen,” but unlike the slapdash snapshots Leibovitz gives us, filtered through a view camera, even Mann’s most mundane scenes took on allegorical weight; each bit of the detritus of domestic life is transformed into a haunting tableau of maternal love and wonder and innocence lost. The true nature of those moments may have belonged only to Mann and her family, but the mysteries they suggested resonated with anyone who has ever been a parent or a child.

Leibovitz is certainly aware of her predecessors; indeed their influence haunts “A Photographer’s Life.” The most striking allusion is to the work of Leibovitz’s admitted hero Richard Avedon — and never is it more obvious than in Leibovitz’s morbid portraits of Sontag and her dying father. Just as Avedon’s pictures of his ailing dad were condemned as exploitative and uncaring, today’s critics have scolded Leibovitz’s decision to include such unsparing images of Sontag — photos that, even by Leibovitz’s own admission, the notoriously vain Sontag would never have wanted made public. Does that make her choice a betrayal? It would be easier to forgive Leibovitz if the pictures lived up to her iconic reputation. But while shocking in their candor, and no doubt heartfelt, as composed images — as art — they fall flat.

It was precisely that visual exactitude that instilled in Avedon’s portraits of his father a virtue lacking in Leibovitz’s images of the dying Sontag. Avedon’s death series was redeemed by his ability to metamorphose pictures of his invalid father into classic “Avedon portraits” — as penetrating and graphic and arresting as any one of the shots he snapped for the New Yorker or Vogue. They were images of mortality and decay filtered through a precise aesthetic prism — and further example of the way that when the conditions are right, a photographer can make personal work that is also a perfect synthesis of the everyday and the artful, the amateur and the professional. So perhaps it’s no surprise that in “A Photographer’s Life,” Leibovitz’s best family photos are those that are most like her assignment work. In a few formal, simple, straightforward portraits of Sontag and the photographer’s parents, posed in Leibovitz’s studio or outdoors in the open air — in which the sitters look attractive and well-lighted and self-aware — there is a flash of recognition, a sense both of who the person is in front of the camera and behind it. “It doesn’t necessarily get easier to photograph someone the more you know them,” Leibovitz said to the crowd at her opening — a simple insight that was immensely revealing. Indeed, intimacy is not Leibovitz’s forte; if anything, it is willful and cooperative artifice. All too happy to indulge their sitter’s vanity, those few family pictures may not have the messy, edgy “authenticity” of the other snapshots, but they are somehow more personal, more heartfelt nonetheless. They are half-truths told with good intentions — and isn’t there a kind of love in that?

The great appeal of the snapshot has always been its power to provide a world out of context and beyond time. Specters of a suspended moment, they allow all of us to return endlessly to a past that we’ve lost — one in which children never grow, wives never wrinkle, parents never die. Photographs are the life we carry with us once the real one gets roughed up by time’s failing synapses. They are our visual diaries, exquisitely personal, practically unmediated. And like diaries, they are meant for private consumption.

There is a passing moment in Leibovitz’s introduction when she admits that, in their years together, Sontag always chided her for not taking enough photos while off the clock. Before she died, Sontag wanted personal pictures, snapshots — she wanted memories. Hearing that admission, it’s not hard to see the family photos in “A Photographer’s Life” as a workaholic’s belated rebuttal to her lover’s challenge. Messy and makeshift, the pictures — the whole show, rather — is a defiant, and perhaps a little deluded, announcement to Sontag, and her audience, but, most of all, to herself, that she did not let her own life go unseen.

Sarah Karnasiewicz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Until recently, she was senior editor at Saveur magazine; prior to that she was deputy Life editor at Salon. She has contributed to the New York Times, the New York Observer and Rolling Stone, among other publications. For more of her work, visit thefastertimes.com/streetfood and Signs and Wonders.

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