I am a sucker for photographers’ stories, diaries en memoirs. Old manuals also, and books entitled “modern photography” and published in 1936 are irresistible to me. So I couldn’t have missed Cecil Beaton’s diaries, and Leibovitz’s latest volume: Annie at work. Some similarities, but also huge differences between these two legendary photographers’ bundles. They have both enjoyed a great career, on both sides of the Atlantic although starting from opposite ends, and both have had the privilege of photographing the British royal family and Queen Elizabeth II in particular. Cecil Beaton was probably more at home in the palace, a son of the Empire, as intimate as you could get to the family as a photographer short of being part of it, like Snowdon was. Leibovitz is American, so, to put it as she did, she could afford to be reverential (?). I don’t know if this was the case at the shoot, the BBC filming of the session would suggest otherwise, but the pictures are surely very classic, sumptuous and utterly regal. Were they not the real thing, one could mistake them for a digital Hollywood reconstruction. Leibovitz produced images that are so European and pictorial as only an American would and no European would dare nowadays. They are sleek and clean like high quality ads, a feast of digital perfection, a celebration of order and beauty, very, very formal. In a way they do resemble the compositions of Beaton’s work with the Queen Mother, although he was working in black and white, and retouching, although very proficient, was still a brush and knife business far from present possibilities available to a star photographer at top prices. They are pictorial more than photographic, and this seems to be the way forward in stardom photography.
Annie at work is a page-turner. As one eagerly dips into the story trying to learn useful tips and techniques, absorb insights in the glitterati and the rich, decode the secret of a meteoric success and possibly learn what kind of person it takes to perform under the daunting pressures and challenges of dealing with the top and being expected to deliver the best, while being reminded of her very famous and some less known pictures, a sense of climax leads on and on ultimately failing to fulfil. Compared with Beaton’s confessions - his prose colourful and intimate, ironic and delightful if at times excessively histrionic - Leibovitz’s words are sober, sometimes hard and businesslike, prosaic. We are being left out, lead around the tour of the official version of events, given the Authorized Version. There is a matter-of-fact inevitability in the succession of events in her career that doesn’t sound lifelike, maybe there is simply too much connective material missing for the story to be credible. At this point in her life Annie Leibovitz has reached a notoriety that easily matches or exceeds that of her subjects in the pages of Vanity Fair. She is subjected to the same laws, and lead down the same path of PR and commercial exploitation of her persona as any other star. Quite possibly she is in control of the situation, with great awareness of what it implies and how to deal with it. A movie, books, the making of a myth.
As a member of the public, a reader, most humbly a photographer, I think it hard to find this promo material nourishing. Maybe she is too far up for her experience to have any resonance in my life, and I am slightly too old to buy in and believe in the story simply and thinly as it is told. Best thing to do is leave the text for what it is and study the pictures, where the real worth lies. Because Annie Leibovitz is a photographer at heart, a sensitive one, finding her way as she goes and doing many different things. Regardless of her success maybe, she should be valued for her off the beaten track images and her willingness to experiment, risk and find new things out. If other photographers should be remembered for their hearts, eyes or souls, maybe Leibovitz stands out for her guts.