Leibovitz is the greatest living photographer of the world. Not only does she photograph the great and the famous, but does so in such a way that the result is almost invariably a great icon, if not often so original as to transcend the effect of recognition that we feel towards the effigies of celebrities and replace it with admiration and awe at her own talent and at the power of photography in general. The great get greater or at times even unrecognizable and unexpectedly intriguing through her lens and anyone else she photographs instantly seems to turn into a celebrity, by power of her sheer vision and craft alone, at least off the page. And all this she has been doing for longer than we can remember, leaving a trail of images in our memory and great books on our shelves and tables. Quintessentially American, capable of sophistication and the subtlety that I tend to associate to European photographers as well, she is by now so famous herself as to rival her subjects in that respect. Even Madame Tussaud’s, the ultimate and slightly macabre universal hall of fame, has added her to the collection of frozen waxy look a likes . I bought my first great Annie Leibovitz book long before I could afford a shelf deep enough to hold it well. It stuck out, and in a way still does among many others by other authors.
The appearance of her new book is what prompts me to comment on her daunting work and career, that wouldn’t otherwise need further attention than that already lavished on her by so many. It’s an overview on ten-fifteen years of her work, that includes many great images that we already know and many from the realm of her personal life that we didn’t. Annie Leibovitz argues that as there is no separation in her life between personal and on assignment, so it is only natural to include many personal and indeed intimate records of her life into this collection, consequently sharing them with the greater audience. She is not the first one to claim this continuity, Helmut Newton has always said that there was no distinction to him between personal and other work. In his case style and subject matter and sensibility definitely supported the statement, although I suspect that this was obtained by giving us an image of himself as a person somewhat falsified, the same as his models were probably not all the sadomasochistic kittens that he made of them for the enjoyment of his aficionados. Newton made everybody take part in his slightly sadistic black and white sexy universe, everything eventually to be bound very “sumo” and set on a custom design table for the wealthy. When Leibovitz is concerned I don’t feel as much at ease with the idea. She is naturally versatile, equally at ease in beautiful colour as in moody black and white, and plays all the registers of photography, from sharp to blurry, crisp to misty, formal to playful, at will and masterly to produce whatever the situation calls for. A Leibovitz masterpiece may be less easily recognisable as her own than many others, and in this she has in my opinion earned even a greater deal of respect. To me being allowed to look at her personal grainy black and white family album felt awkward. I didn’t need to intrude in her family to know what she stands for, she made this perfectly clear even in her most glossy work. Neither have I ever felt a need to know what she looked like naked when she was pregnant, or her partner the much admired essayist Susan Sontag for that matter. She has not stepped in front of the camera as part of a concept, like Cindy Sherman, but has decided to share these images with her public in a moment when American photography, the arty stuff, is showing an interest for personal records. Is this in a way possibly an evolution of conceptual art like that of Tracy Emin or Sophie Calle, and other younger authors the confront us with as much autobiography as possible in an attempt at drama an human empathy? I can’t believe that Leibovitz needs this expedient in any way, she is perfectly able to tackle her work and life on other levels and deliver all and more drama than we expect. Did she feel her work too commercial and distant from herself after all? Or is this a late conversion to a new creed? She certainly can afford and is allowed to take any artistic risk that she likes at her point in life and publish whatever she feels like in large format and between hard covers sure to find an audience. Only it was surprising to me to come across some double spread pages that didn’t work, other that were simply not any more meaningful than any other photographers (yes, they are always better than average snapshots) personal records. Most keep them to themselves. She, being a celebrity, can chose to share them if she likes. The only thing to do is take them and her foreword at face value, believe what she tells us and decide for ourselves what to make of them. I have spent a good deal of time going through the pages in my local book superstore and decided at last to let this one lay.