Sunday, May 25, 2008

Annie Leibovitz - Speaking With Her Lens

Annie Lebovitz

I have just come from the closing day of the Annie Leibovitz retrospective exhibition at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco. It was a mob scene, but I'm glad I went. My initial response to these photographs is to realize that perhaps her most important work is that for which she is least famous. This is not meant to discredit her shots of celebrities, because they are as fabulous up close and personal as they are reproduced in her books and other places, but many people aren't even aware of the massive black and white American landscapes that she took during her travels...

...and the chilling shots she took of women who were victims of domestic violence or the pictures that recorded the violence in Rwanda and Sarajevo.

Lebovitz had been riding in a car en route to photograph Miss Sarajevo when a mortar rocket hit a young boy on a bicycle right in front of her vehicle. (above) She helped get him into a car that rushed him to the hospital, but he died before they arrived.

This current collection of photographs are the elements that made up her life with her partner, Susan Sontag, her parents, her three children....
Susan Sontag

Leibovitz once remarked that there was no distinction between her professional assignments and her personal life, that her life consisted of one common thread of photography that linked both elements while the photos of celebrities were, indeed, present, this exhibit was courageous in so many other ways.
Demi Moore

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. of England

Nicole Kidman

One of the most powerful images in the collection is a Cabinet Room formal group pose of President Bush, Dick Cheney, Condeleeza Rice, Colin Powell, George Tenet, Andrew Card and Donald Rumsfeld taken in December 2001. Except for Cheney's omnipresent smirk, their faces are difficult to read.
The Bush Cabinet

When the show first went up in Brooklyn in 2006, Leibovitz was asked during the media preview what makes that picture so uncomfortable to look at.
"I think it's the people," she said.

I first became cognizant of Lebovitz' work back in the early 80's when I lived in Houston. My good friend, Al, who had known her for some time, told me that he had bumped into Annie on his way to Austin one day and accompanied her to photograph Elvis Costello. The photo later appeared in her first book.

The early works from this book are among her most famous.


On December 8, 1980, Leibovitz had a photo shoot with John Lennon for Rolling Stone, promising him he would make the cover. After she had initially tried to get a picture with just Lennon alone (she would recall that,nobody wanted [Ono] on the cover."), Lennon insisted that both he and Yoko Ono be on the cover. Leibovitz then tried to recreate the kissing scene from the Double Fantasy album cover, a picture that she loved. "What is interesting is she said she'd take her top off and I said, 'Leave everything on'...not really preconceiving the picture at all. Then he curled up next to her and it was very, very strong. You couldn't help but feel that she was cold and he looked like he was clinging on to her... I shot some test Polaroids first and when I showed them to John and Yoko, John said, 'You've captured our relationship exactly. Promise me it'll be on the cover.' I looked him in the eye and we shook on it." She was the last person to professionally photograph Lennon. He was shot and killed five hours later.
Lennon and Ono

National Public Radio talks about this exhbit and interviews Annie Lebovitz HERE.

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