It happens rarely, but a photographer has landed on the cover of a major American magazine this week—NEWSWEEK has officially certified Annie Leibovitz as our "best known" photographer. There's a major story about her in this week's issue, based on her new book A Photographer's Life: 1990–2005.
It's an almost backhanded compliment, that "best known"—but it's accurate, forehandedly and backhandedly. And it's certainly not the photographer's fault that she's gotten famous by doing what she does very well. Still....
She has all the right cred, the right moves. As a hard-scrabblin' walk-on at Rolling Stone way back when it had some edge (you have to be past a certain age to remember that), she has great counterculture pedigree. As a lesbian (though pictured on the magazine's cover in her role as mother) showing all the alpha males her dust—and whose longtime lover was one of America's foremost intellectuals before she died—she's got the inside track on outsiderhood.
I know all that. I just wish I liked her work more.
For me, she personifies a particular trend that I first wrote about back in 1995. One I don't like very well. The trend? Just that, sometime during the Gordon Gekko years, the "model" of the successful photographer in the eyes of the wannabees, the hobbyists, and the public shifted, somehow. It used to be the photojournalist. By the end of the '80s, however, the quintessential pro had become the advertising photographer. Photography in the service of truth vs. photography in the service of money is putting it way too glibly, but it was something like that. That shift from the play-it-as-it-lays, rip-it-from-life pj to the slick-celebrity-oriented world of fashion magazines and corporate advertising was profound. Ms. L. didn't lead the way, but she shows the way the wind blew.
I don't know her, and the highest sphere I've ever reached doesn't aspire to what she stoops to when she slums. Her pictures are as gorgeous as their subjects. She is like they are, famous and rich. Annie has a retinue and works ten times as hard. (As who? Anybody.) The clients get what they want, famous name, slick picture, ball of wax. Everybody's happy. Everybody's metahappy.
But the substance of her work is style. Her style is that of a chameleon. At its core it's about surface. I'd rather have one 8x10 of that portrait of her at the top of this post than ten of her own famous portraits of her most famous clients, poster-sized and signed. To me it's more of a portrait, somehow. I hope that's not too unkind a thing to say.
Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON
Featured Comment by stevierose: Actually, Annie does a great job of what she does, which is celebrity photography. I am also sick to death of the cult of celebrity in this country and all that goes with it. But, blaming Annie for that is like blaming Robert Capa for war, or blaming Salgado for famine. It's shooting the messenger.
I don't, however, have any objection to MJ or anyone else saying that they just don't like her photographs for whatever reason, aesthetic, philisophical, or otherwise. That is everyone's right. However, I think Leibovitz is the top representative of her photographic niche, I like some of her photographs, and I respect what she does.