“I don’t have two lives,” writes Annie Leibovitz in A Photographer’s Life: 1990 – 2005 (Random House, 2006). And, that’s exactly why she is great. Through her photography, she shows us how she takes hold of life, whatever it is, and lives it honestly. Her pictures capture the person, the moment, the senses, the story and let us extract meaning.
Through May 25, 2008, work from Annie’s A Photographer’s Life is on view at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor Museum . The book is big, but the exhibit is bigger. There you are shoulder-to-shoulder with others and so close that it’s like being inside the photographs. There are really big ones and really small ones, but all are big on honesty, fantasy, love, and beauty. And, it is all mixed up.
Juxtaposed to photographs of celebrities are military men. Military men shimmy up to writers. Family is everywhere. In one room, a child, her daughter, Sarah, dressed in faery costume dances around a summer garden, and in the next tales of genocide stare starkly out at you. Children’s bloody footprints on a wall and a child’s bike in a pool of blood tell horrible stories in stillness and silence.
Sometimes she shares just a glimpse of what was going on behind the photograph because there is always something. She writes about the portrait of her mother that she took at Clifton Point in 1997,” She was worried about looking old. I was crying behind the camera.” Passing that portrait of her mother taken later in life, a middle-aged woman says to her friend,” That’s her mother. Her mother. It just sets me off. I just love it.”
Annie’s photographs show us how people who believe in themselves are not afraid to be themselves. The photographs of her mother reveal a woman who, even in her later years, is true to her dancer self. In one of several photographs on the beach, she lifts a leg in grand battement, her arms perfectly outstretched in second position. In the many photographs of Susan Sontag stretched out on sofas, chairs, and beds with notes, papers, and books strewn about, Annie shows us the thinker and in others of Susan, stretched out in the tub, she shows us vulnerability. This powerful genuineness is also solidly there in the photographs of Arnold Schwarzenegger on a ski slope at Sun Valley, Idaho, 1997 and Oseola McCarty, washerwoman and philanthropist at her home in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, 1997.
Then there are those “gracious and comely form(s)” that (s)he “so skillfully mirror(s) in her art” that Oscar Wilde celebrates in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Rounding a corner in the Legion of Honor exhibit, “Wow,” there he is, Dorian himself, a photograph of Daniel Day Lewis taken at the Vandam Street studio in 1992. This same beauty perceived fully though the senses is in the photographs of Jamie Fox, taken at the Culver Studios in California in 2004 and in that of Robert de Niro taken at the West 26th Street Studio in 2000.
The perception of beauty through the senses is there in the Cindy Crawford photograph, New York, 1993, in which she stands with the snake draped across her shoulders. She is Eve. But she is also Venus, Botticelli’s Venus. Perhaps that’s the biggest gift Annie gives us: The ability to make a whole, to make the connections that bring it all together, right there in front of us, immediately. Because it is just one life.
All original content copyright 2008 Mary E. Slocum