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Friday, September 29, 2006

Annie Annointed

Susan Sontag, Annie Leibovitz

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.


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.


Blogger Paul said...

"Photography... is a varied and ambiguous process in which the only common denominator among its practitioners is in the instrument."
-Henri Cartier-Bresson

2:08 AM  
Blogger dyathink said...

i recently lugged a copy of Annie's book "Women" (with essay by Ms. Sontag) home from California in my luggage, sat down to enjoy it and, to my suprise, found i didn't. i had long enjoyed her photos of celebrities for what they were. Her covers on Vanity Fair were always sensational. But this book, something jarred my nerves, something felt uncomfortably wrong. Was it this photograph or that? Well, aside from one conspicuously gratuitous crotch shot of the Kilgore College Rangerettes doing high kicks, the rest were adequate, even excellent. i especially enjoyed her photos of Vegas show girls both on and off the job. So what was wrong? I did not know Ms. Liebowitz' sexual orientation till this moment. So after reading this blog entry, I pulled the book down from the shelf to look through it again and now it all makes sense. A book about women by a Lesbian. Well, slap myself upside the head! Now i get where she was coming from. I'm not sure i like it any more than i did before but it's certainly way more comprehensible.

2:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't agree that Annie Leibovitz hasn't got a perticular style. I can recognise her pictures every time I open a magazine. She developed a certain way of lighting, framing - her style.
I like her photos a lot - I think she knows how to capture the essencial ikon of the subject. Her portraits are not about personality of the subject, but about his role in pop-culture. But hey, that's what the commercial photography is all about. And Annie combines commercial approach with art. Her photos are fuul of reference to paintings or symbols. That's what I think good commercial photography is about. And it is definetively hard to achieve, and it's not easy to have your own ideas when photographing celebrity.

2:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice one, Mike. Spot on.

The advertising photographers are no longer glorifying products. They are now in the people business where the same principles apply. As you correctly state, there is something very rooted in the 80s in all this. Anyway, it works extremely well, and the public is happy. Yes, metahappy even.

3:54 AM  
Blogger robert said...

Apparently this only ran in the US version of Newsweek. Everywhere else in the world the front cover is of a very scary looking Afghani and the story "LOSING AFGHANISTAN" is all about how we have screwed up there so tragically in the past 5 years. Go figure....

Evidently Newsweek thinks that the rest of the world not ready for the hard facts of an Annie Liebowitz love-in, and so has put on a cover story that they think has more chance of generating sales......


4:48 AM  
Blogger robert said...

so, i leave a comment on your top story, and then scroll down to see your next story......


4:50 AM  
Anonymous Mitch said...

Some years ago there was a large retrospective Arnold Newman exhibition at the Corcoran Museum in Washington DC. It was dazzling. Annie Liebowitz had the misfortune, in my view, of having an exhibition at the Corocoran at the same time of huge, poster-sized portraits of women. There was no comparison: the exhibtion showed that he is a superb portraitist while Liebewitz in comparison came across as all artifice and fluff. Clearly she came across as a much less interesting photographer — not that interesting at all, in fact. You're right: the Sontag portrait is much more interesting than Liebowitz's work.

—Mitch/Potomac, MD

7:27 AM  
Anonymous Dan Sumption said...

You want an 8x10 of that square photo? An 8x8 might be cheaper ;-)

7:56 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"You want an 8x10 of that square photo? An 8x8 might be cheaper ;-)"

Traditional photographs are specified by paper size, not image size.


8:08 AM  
Blogger Alan said...

Unburdened by experience Annie produced Raw journalism, some fine early work. Unfortunately with each passing year Annie has become more encumbered with aesthetic and process. The complication of her photography sucks truth out of her subjects and replaces it with blandness. What a great shame. Once again CULT OF PERSONALITY has prevailed..........Woops, I almost fell off my purch.

8:11 AM  
Blogger Max said...

I was reading this post and in the back of my head a song was playing, "You're so vain", by Carly Simon. I don't know were the link came from.

8:22 AM  
Anonymous bramborr said...

I agree with MJ's point of view. Celebrity photography says very little to me. As a result I only remember seeing some of her shots like D.Byrne with leaf jacket but I am not at all inspired by her work.

8:40 AM  
Blogger Photo-essayist said...

Didn't Leibovitz do that photo of Jodi Foster in a red dress on a beach in the red light of a setting sun? Hey, I love that photo. Or is it that I love Jodi Foster?

9:00 AM  
Anonymous Bill said...

Having hurried home from school each Friday to read LIFE, I learned an early appreciation for photojournalism. To be fair, (and with all respect to Magnum et al) most of the frontline photojournalists of the present are shooting video and their work is seen nightly in electrons rather than printers ink.

9:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I can't agree that Annie Leibovitz hasn't got a perticular style. I can recognise her pictures every time I open a magazine."

I think that's more because if you find a posed "artistic" photo of a famous person in a US magazine pretty much any time in the last 4-5 years it is a Liebovitz and you're used to it.

She's become the Anne Geddes of celebrity photography.

11:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Leibovitz or Ritts both produced very good portraiture, but, I think anyone with good technical skill, a couple of lighting assistants, a makeup artist, a set designer, the actor’s public relations person and a master printer, could do the same or better with equal access to those beautiful and talented people.

12:08 PM  
Blogger Don said...

I would take the 10 poster/signed prints... And put them on Ebay

3:52 PM  
Anonymous ernie said...

Best Known by who? By Newsweek no doubt. Her stuff is billboard photography - you see it, you like and then a second later you're onto something else. I've seen tens maybe hundreds of her photos but NONE come to mind as I sit here.

12:17 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"I've seen tens maybe hundreds of her photos but NONE come to mind as I sit here."

Really? Not even Yoko and naked John, or pregnant Demi Moore? Forgettability doesn't seem to be her problem in my opinion.


12:20 PM  
Blogger Ronnie Preuss said...

I think Annie Liebowitz work is fabulous! I am a long time fan and always delighted to see her new works. I unfortunately missed her last exhibit in Atlanta and eagerly anticipated the chance to savor the photos in the book. I am deeply sorry for her loss. I felt it was a privledge to witness segments of the life she shared with Susan Sontag. Ronnie Preuss Sebastian Florida

4:56 PM  

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