Leibovitz: a life in pictures

An exhibition at Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art presents Annie Leibovitz's personal and public photographic work as one whole.

Annie Leibovitz is synonymous with celebrity. As perhaps America's best-known living photographer, she has produced iconic images of politicians, actors, athletes, and writers that, for many, provide the visual definition of fame for our times.

Her formal portraits have an identifiable style that usually combines bright lighting with almost supernatural hard- edge focus on the full body. She cajoles her subjects to face her camera unblinkingly. She seems to have them say: Like it or not, this is me.

Queen Elizabeth II, Bill Clinton, Michael Jordan, Jack Nicholson, Nelson Mandela, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, and Eudora Welty are a few of the many who have braved a shoot with Ms. Leibovitz.

But the bright lights, the big names, and riding of the waves of celebrity are only a part of the life of Annie Leibovitz. There is a private, little-known side to her: For years, she has been documenting the lives of family and friends in black-and-white 35-mm snapshots – not unlike most backyard family photographers, but with a considerably more artistic eye.

Now Leibovitz has brought these two sides of her life together in an exhibition and book that amount to a memoir in pictures. The exhibition, "Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer's Life 1990-2005" originated at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 2006 but has just opened at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. A book of the same title, which includes more photos than could be displayed on museum walls, has been published to coincide with the exhibition.

Indeed, this show is one more indication that Leibovitz is the latest in a distinguished line of American female photographers – including Margaret Bourke-White, Diane Arbus, and Lee Miller – all of whom have put their own stamp on the art form.

A tall, commanding presence in a gray shirt, gray pants, and designer sneakers, she recently spoke at the opening of the Corcoran exhibit. "I've always been interested in what people do and how they do it," she said, explaining her motivation.

Leibovitz said that the exhibit and book originated out of a desire to work through grief following the deaths three years ago of her longtime friend and mentor, the writer Susan Sontag, and then her father.

She decided to organize the exhibit and book chronologically, interspersing her commercial work with private photos. "This is one life," she said of her experience between 1990 and 2005, the period covered by the exhibit. "...[P]ersonal pictures and the assignment work are all part of it."

What is intriguing about the Leibovitz project is that the photos in her private portfolio are often as compelling as those she has taken of the stars. This juxtaposition of public and private people inevitably raises questions about who is and who is not a celebrity and whether celebrities, as such, would exist without glossy pictures by photographers like Leibovitz.

Interspersed with pictures of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Scarlett Johansson, and Brad Pitt are photos of her average American parents (Marilyn and Samuel Leibovitz), siblings, and nieces and nephews, who appear strikingly vibrant through Leibovitz's lens.

In a photo shown here, Leibovitz's father and mother relax with two of her sisters and a nephew on a Long Island beach. The family photo holds its own as an object of interest when compared with the celebrity portrait from the exhibit (also reproduced here) of the dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov being lifted by Rob Besserer on Cumberland Island, Ga., in 1990.

Leibovitz's career started in the late 1960s when she took night classes in photography while she was studying painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. Following graduation, she began working for Rolling Stone magazine, a publication then in its infancy, and was named its chief photographer in 1973. When the magazine moved to New York, Leibovitz followed, but she joined Vanity Fair in 1983 as she was becoming increasingly well known for her portraits.

But this exhibition reveals a much wider range of Leibovitz's talents and interests. It includes pictures of her visit to war-torn Sarajevo in the early 1990s and landscape photography, which she describes as her "hobby." The culmination of the show is three of the photos Leibovitz took in digital format of Queen Elizabeth II last spring.

But it must be said that some pictures in this exhibit are of truly private scenes, including photos of Leibovitz's father and of Susan Sontag when they were ill. These pictures raise the issue of when the private should remain private.

Leibovitz indicated in her Washington talk that making her own private life public hasn't all been easy. In the book's introduction, she admits of the project: "It's the closest thing to who I am that I've ever done." That's quite an admission for an artist whose career has been about focusing bright lights and her camera lens on the lives of others.

"Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer's Life, 1990-2005" is on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington until Jan. 13, 2008.

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