find her work too glib. Some gripe it smells of cash. And I know high-toned art folk who -- appalled by the vulgarity of blatantly consumerist hype-ridden celebrity -- wrinkle up their noses in the presence of her art. I don't, I tend to marvel.
By Paul Richard
In this business, anyone assigned a famous-person story (like the one you are reading) would want Annie Leibovitz to take the pictures that will run with it to sell it to your eye. Not because she's lots of laughs, or easy to work with, or suave, which she isn't, but because she's tops.
At making popular public portraits, nobody is better. Half, but only half, of "Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer's Life, 1990-2005" at the Corcoran Gallery of Art proves she's the best we've got.
Its other half is thick with loss. Her show is cracked in two.
She's had other exhibitions here. No doubt she'll have more. Maybe that's because her insistently approving portraits of the famous have the sheen of public monuments (of which Washington has many) and maybe it's because they ladle out big helpings of high-fashion celebrity (of which we don't have much). Also the photographer is a local girl made good. Leibovitz (her name ends "vitz," not "witz") grew up as an Air Force brat in suburban Silver Spring. Think how far she's come. First she went out West to study painting in San Francisco. Then, in 1970, she started shooting rock-and-rollers for the pages of Rolling Stone. Now, at 58, she's got a place in American art.
The painter Gilbert Stuart, who worked downtown and put his presidents on the currency, and the sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who put his on Mount Rushmore, are among her predecessors. So are the Hollywood directors who lit Marilyn and Liz, and so is Andy Warhol, who brought their stardom into art. They, too, made popular public portraits. But theirs were for then, hers are for now.
Uma Thurman, Cindy Crawford, Nicole Kidman, Demi Moore. When Leibovitz shoots glamorously beautiful women they look more glamorously beautiful than they ever have. Likewise for the glamorously beautiful men. At the Corcoran, Brad Pitt is a bed animal in leopard-print pants and Leonardo DiCaprio is a Mediterranean demigod with a bird around his neck, Leo and the Swan).
Leibovitz's Queen Elizabeth II couldn't be more regal. Leibovitz's Johnny Cash (she shot the singer's family picking guitars on the porch) couldn't be more country. Her Mikhail Baryshnikov seems to float above the sea, a paragon of grace.
Once upon a time, lots of painters painted demigods, though not many do so now. The shining figures whom she photographs seem more than mortal, too. They have magic. They distill our dreams. She distills the distillation.
Her art -- which draws in equal measure from 8-by-10 Hollywood glossies, chic fashion photography, Jimmy Olsen news shots, Life magazine photo essays, Leni Riefenstahl heroics and Karsh-of-Ottawa close-ups -- is as attentive to art history as it is to power. Technically, graphically and commercially as well, it's pretty near impeccable. And it isn't snarky. Monuments don't belittle. She doesn't tear down, she builds up.
Skillful Richard Avedon was, comparatively, a sadist. When he wasn't shooting fashion, he liked to tear the psychic skin from the faces of his subjects. When he sat for Annie Leibovitz he was 79, and sickly, and understandably afraid.
"Don't worry," she said.
Some find her work too glib. Some gripe it smells of cash. And I know high-toned art folk who -- appalled by the vulgarity of blatantly consumerist hype-ridden celebrity -- wrinkle up their noses in the presence of her art. I don't, I tend to marvel. Her superiority, it seems to me, is pretty undeniable, like that of Tiger Woods. Their quarrel is not with Leibovitz, their quarrel is with the world.
In 2005, when the American Society of Magazine Editors unveiled "the 40 greatest magazine covers of the last 40 years," they gave first place to a 1980 photograph of Yoko Ono and John Lennon that was taken for Rolling Stone on the day that he was murdered and second place to Vanity Fair's pregnant Demi Moore wearing nothing but diamonds. Leibovitz shot both.
"I'm not a journalist," she writes in the very heavy book that accompanies the Corcoran show. She's being demure. She's been, at times, an ace journalist. When she joined the White House scrum to shoot Richard Nixon's leaving, her photos blew away other coverage of the scene. She was great at O.J. Simpson's trial, too. She doesn't need the studio, the props, the costly setup. Her "Sarajevo: Fallen Bicycle of Teenage Boy Just Killed . . . " (1994) -- the fallen bike, the pavement, a crescent smear of blood -- stabs you through the eye.
"He had been hit by a mortar that came down in front of our car," she writes. "I was on my way to a housing project to photograph Miss Sarajevo. We put him in the car, and sent him to the hospital, but he died on the way."
Her exhibition was organized by Charlotta Kotik for the Brooklyn Museum. It will be seen in Paris and in London before its 10-city tour is over. At the Corcoran it closes, rather beautifully, with giant wall-sizelandscapes of the deserts and the waters of God's exalted earth. That's what she is best at, shooting the exalted.
For a while she forgot.
* * *
What cracks her show in half is grief, harrowing grief.
For the 15 years surveyed, the artist shared her life with the writer Susan Sontag, who, after years of sickness (chemo, a mastectomy, ambulances, hospitals, a bone-marrow replacement) died on Dec. 28, 2004.
Sontag was as famous as Leibovitz. She was famous for her brilliance and for being an American version of a Parisian star intellectual, and for the skunk-streak of bright white that ran through her black hair.
"There are beautiful deaths," says Leibovitz. "Susan's death was ghastly. She didn't want to go."
Leibovitz loved her. And watched her unstoppable dying. And then she watched her dad's.
"My father," writes the artist, "had been ill for some time, and I had flown down to Florida to be with him after spending Christmas in the hospital in New York with Susan. She died before I could get back. He died six weeks later."
Leibovitz had her first child, Sarah, at age 51. Her twins, Susan and Samuelle, arrived 3 1/2 years later. She was raising three young daughters in the midst of all that death.
"Susan," she writes, "used to complain that that I didn't take enough pictures . . . I would take a few rolls of film and throw them in a box and they wouldn't be developed for months. Sometimes I wouldn't even look at the contact sheets. But after Susan died . . . I began searching for photographs of her . . . because it made me feel close to her and helped me to begin to say goodbye. I found so many things I didn't remember or perhaps had never even seen before. I also began looking at all the photographs I had taken of the rest of my family."
Her father's last good years, his slow decline, his grave. Her lover's last good years, her slow decline, her corpse. Her family on the beach, her family in mourning. Pictures of this sort take up nearly half the show.
They don't look much like polished art. They look much more like snapshots soaked in love and hurt. None of them are bad. She doesn't take bad pictures. But they mean much more to her than they'll ever mean to us.
Susan on Mount Vesuvius, Susan at her desk, Susan in bed, Susan in the bathtub, Susan's computer, her shell collection, her notebooks, Susan getting her hair cut, Susan in Paris, Susan in Venice, Susan getting sicker, Susan's body bloating, and finally, Susan dead.
The best of Leibovitz's portraits are polished to a fare-thee-well. Here the surface splinters. Too much Susan, too much family, too much Annie, too. Usually her subjects absorb all your attention. Not here. This is like standing in the memoir department at the bookstore: too much me, me, me.
Leibovitz is walking through her Corcoran exhibition. No, not walking, striding. She says, "I can't believe I did this."
"What did I do?" she asks herself. Then she answers her own question.
"I was crazy," says Annie Leibovitz. "The grief leaked out of me."
"Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer's Life, 1990-2005" Tickets are required for admission to "Annie Leibovitz" at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The cost at the museum is $14 for adults, $12 for seniors and members of the military and $10 for students. Tickets can be purchased through http://www.ticketmaster.com. The show is supported by American Express. The museum, at 17th Street and New York Avenue NW, is closed on Tuesdays. On other days the hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., except on Thursdays when it remains open until 9 p.m. For information call 202-639-1700 or go to http://www.corcoran.org/leibovitz. Many more photographs than the 195 on view are reproduced in the $75, 472-page hardcover catalogue. The show closes Jan. 13
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