Annie Leibovitz was born (as Anna-Lou) in Connecticut, on October 2, 1949, the third of six children. Her parents were Sam, a lieutenant colonel in the US Air Force, and Marilyn, a dance teacher, both Jewish. That’s what it says in the record book, anyway. Really, she was born in a Robert Frank photograph.
‘My father was in the Air Force,’ Leibovitz wrote in her book, A Photographer’s Life 1990-2005. ‘Every time he was transferred to a new base we jumped in the car and drove there. We lived together in cars. When young photographers ask me what they should do, I always tell them to stay close to home.’ The more you read those lines, the more you wonder if she really grasped the paradox in both them and her life’s work – her personal life, too, as it happens. Move, move, move. Cars, cars, cars. But stay at home.
She is the lead portraitist of Vanity Fair, a grown woman, 6ft tall, with three children of her own. Yet she is also the little girl peering, with her camera, into the rooms and lives of rich, happy, settled families. ‘A thing that you see in my pictures is that I was not afraid to fall in love with these people,’ she has said. The surface sheen and brio of these portraits unknowingly evoke an aching and striving for a romantic, domestic past that, of course, never existed – for her, anyway. That’s their trick. Via Leibovitz’s own impossible and envious longings, we are given space to see and feel our own secret wishes.
She took up photography while studying at San Francisco Art Institute and was quickly hired by Rolling Stone magazine, which was then based in the city. For 10 years from 1973 she was the magazine’s photographer-in-chief, becoming a main player – maybe the main player – in establishing the protocols and possibilities of rock and roll reportage. She went on tour with the Rolling Stones, making a series of definitive rock performance images. She developed a cocaine habit that took five years and rehab to kick.
In 1983, she transferred to the then recently relaunched Vanity Fair. There, under the direction of editor Tina Brown, she reinvented herself as a – maybe the – cataloguer of the rich, the famous and their rich and famous lifestyles. She captures wealth and power — from the inside, with the love, admiration and wit of a favoured courtier, a court jester even. I think of Holbein, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Velázquez. Loving images of wealth and power and money and looks redeemed and blessed by the openness of desire in both sitter and photographer. When she photographed the Queen, it was as a queen, all white, in crown and fur.
To warm to her photographs – or even just appreciate them – you have to abandon yourself to trusting that surface can be depth. Her portrait of President Bush and his inner cabinet in the wake of 9/11. It is both a historical document and a portrait of power and its anxieties. Each figure in the picture is given the attention to express their own story. And it contains a great riddle — what is the story behind the plaster on Donald Rumsfeld’s finger?
She also retained contact with the world of rock and roll. Her pictures of musicians are like pictures of friends. There is a warm intimacy, steeped in knowledge, experience and understanding, arresting in its directness. Pete Seeger’s hand and banjo. Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson as Coney Island Babies. The back view of Bruce Springsteen used for the cover of his Born In The USA album. Brian Wilson in a bathrobe by a pool, beneath a storm-threatening grey sky. Only someone who knew the Beach Boys like they knew the back of their own hand could have taken that picture. Its pathetic fallacy is a knowing encapsulation of just about everything you can think of about the Beach Boys: water, sky, Wilson’s conflicted self, the promises of the promised land. Not just the fulfilled promises either but also the empty ones – emptied, too. It’s this instability, this rootlessness that — again, the paradox — roots her work. Without it, her portraits of the American elite would be vapid, maybe even repulsive. Instead, their empty longingness imparts a life and grace.
Her achievement and reputation rest on two things: technical bravura (now often via post-production) and an appetite for flesh – by which I both do and don’t mean sex. At her best, she uses nakedness as a way of revealing, not exposing. She did so from early on. A seemingly naked David Cassidy on the cover of Rolling Stone revolutionised his career, remade him as something other than a love-object for pre-teens.
Sometimes her flesh pictures are just great fun. Whoopi Goldberg in a bath of milk – the obviousness of the white-black gag being its charm. Sometimes they are deeper. John Lennon, naked, next to a clothed Yoko – just hours before his murder. Demi Moore’s pregnant belly – but hidden breasts – for a Vanity Fair cover. Hannah Montana star Miley Cyrus as some kind of jailbait – perhaps a deliberate comment by Leibovitz on Disney’s promotion of the young and nubile performer. Or an inadvertent comment perhaps.
Sometimes they display a deep understanding of muscle, bone and movement – something she surely learned from watching her Martha Graham-trained mother at work and play. In these pictures, there is a modern dancer’s hard-learned appreciation of the physical body’s capacity for meaning. She shot Lance Armstrong, naked, on his racing bike – bare, white flesh where his racing shirt and shorts would normally be. It’s an astonishing conceit and, in all possible meanings, a winning one. In time, of course, with the revelation of the cyclist’s cheating and bullying, its nakedness would become another symbol of Armstrong’s duplicity: naked truth vs bare-faced lies.
Her self-portrait of her own heavily pregnant belly, with her heavy breasts open and revealed to the world is pleasingly solipsistic. It contains more than a hint that she didn’t get to be pregnant as a result of immaculate conception. Yet we know that, in a sense, she did. The baby would be born into a woman-to-woman relationship. Her partner was the late Susan Sontag, the American writer who, among other things, introduced the wider world to the idea of ‘camp’ and wrote the first great modern intellectual book on photography. Almost in return, Leibovitz took photographs of her partner. A picture of Sontag half-naked on a bed is luscious without being lubricious. That Sontag wrote that book on photography adds to the picture’s resonance. The photograph literally and knowingly gives body – and sexuality – to the dry skin and bones of the bookish life.
Leibovitz’s giant, staged images of Hollywood stars and shakers are things of wonder, too. Their celebration of surface secretly reveals – maybe even satisfies – universal human desires. Look at her Alice in Wonderland shoot. Actors and actresses – makers of our dreams – posed, gorgeously, in tableaux which echo and play with not just photography’s earliest years and Lewis Carroll’s own pictures (particularly the ones – of young, naked girls, presumably – he destroyed and which therefore, we have never seen, only dreamed about) but also our own earliest years when we all kind of believed in talking rabbits and hookah-smoking caterpillars.
In time, she took to war reportage – well-meant and perhaps effective but somehow rote. The saving note of these pictures is their innocence: war photography as it might be in a not-very-clever film about war photographers. She also took to making publishing images of her own domestic life. Through her lens, she tracked the births and growth of her children and the deaths of both parents and her lover Susan. Perhaps unsurprisingly for such a mistress of the public surface, these private images are somehow less personal than her portraiture of public figures.
Meantime, her personal life has increasingly come to inhabit the world of her Vanity Fair images. A loft in Manhattan, townhouses in Greenwich Village (one went up for sale for $33 million), an estate in upstate New York, an apartment in Paris (in a building photographed by Atget). Private jets. Law suits – over property and taxes. She made her way back from bankruptcy via a deal with private equity firm – a $24 million loan on her work, from the Art Capital Group. She has become one of the people she photographs. Anna-Lou has stepped through the looking glass.
© Peter Silverton 2019