Annie Leibovitz: San Francisco Fine Arts Museum Legion of Honor

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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San Francisco Fine Arts Museum Legion of Honor

March 1 – May 25, 2008

The exhibition of Annie Leibovitz’s photographs that is still on view at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco through May 25, 2008, is an odd intermingling of personal photographs and the celebrity photos she is known for, produced for glossy magazines such as Vanity Fair and Vogue. Ms. Leibovitz had initially conceived of the exhibit, and the book that accompanies it, as a kind of memorial after the back-to-back deaths of her father Samuel Leibovitz and her lover Susan Sontag, in 2004. It was to contain only personal photographs from the last 15 years of her life—the years she shared with Susan—but as Ms. Leibovitz has revealed in interviews, she soon realized that she had to include her professional photographs. As she explains in the exhibition’s introduction, “I don’t have two lives. This is one life, and the personal pictures and the assignment work are all part of it.”

The inclusion of these celebrity photographs certainly draws in an audience otherwise perhaps disinclined to explore the personal life of this relatively lesser celebrity herself. If the posters advertising the exhibit are any indication, the organizers thought the same—Nicole Kidman graced the poster for the original show at the Brooklyn Museum, and a black-and-white photo of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s corporeal splendor is luring the consumers of Art in the more laid-back (as in anti-Hollywood glitz) community of San Francisco. It is these photographs that entice the masses, but it is Annie Leibovitz’s relationship with Susan Sontag, herself a major celebrity in more rarefied intellectual and academic circles, that is also packing them in, especially the controversial photos of Sontag in extremis and ravaged by disease.

An all too human voyeuristic curiosity (always the photographer’s bedfellow) to see the photos of Susan Sontag at death’s door will inevitably bring some to this show, as it will keep others away, out of sympathy to those of Sontag’s mourners who begrudge Ms. Leibovitz for what they claim is an intrusion beyond the borders of propriety. But the harrowing images of a near dead lover are not what lingers well after the exhibit is over. It is the almost visceral empathy we feel towards another person’s grief, one that reminds us of our own—both already experienced and yet to come—that stays with us long after we leave these pictures. And how we reach that moment of empathy, of making the artist’s experience our own, is the true brilliance of this exhibit.

The exhibit is so clever in its unfolding that even though you instinctively feel like there is reason behind the choice and order of the photos, you are not immediately privy to it. In the beginning, the exhibit beckons us with the welcoming image of a blatant, and amusing, provocation—an enlarged print of a naked Cindy Crawford posing as Eve in a forest, with a snake judiciously covering what a fig leaf used to. And then, quite unexpectedly, around a corner on an adjacent wall, we see a series of much smaller photographs of Annie Leibovitz’s mother at the beach, looking rotund and yet still sturdy, kicking up her leg while playing with her young granddaughter. And then, with an abruptness and measure that dwarf the beach snapshots of Annie’s mother, appear extremely large reproductions of photos of the 1996 U.S. Olympic team, Leni Riefenstahl-like photographs of the human body at the height of its physical powers.

It is our first warning that there is something about the body, and about aging, going on here. Marilyn Leibovitz’s 65-year-old former dancer’s body can still kick a leg up, and her exuberance is barely dimmed, but her athleticism is that of a 65-year-old woman, decades past the erotic beauty of a fashion model in her prime, or the physical powers exuded in the next gigantic photos of Olympic athletes, and subsequent images of the muscular bodies of dancer Bill T. Jones and Mikhail Baryshnikov at the height of their own powers. We are being introduced to an affirmation of the beauty of our physical selves, and subtly reminded of the passing of time, which for all of us requires the aging of the body and ultimately, death.

The wonders and trials of the body are constantly memorialized in this exhibit. Two particularly exhilarating inclusions are the now-famous portrait of the very pregnant Demi Moore, and another similar portrait of a very pregnant Annie Leibovitz, at age 50, taken by Susan Sontag. While I was there, I overheard one visitor, an older woman, comment on how many photos of naked people there were in the exhibit. There are in fact very few, but the human body, the façade of who we are, is Annie’s first subject, and because the physical self is at the show’s core, the nudity seems not only understandable, but essential.

And then comes the photo, early in the exhibit, that serves as a marker for all that came before and all that is yet to come. It is the portrait of Annie’s father, Samuel Leibovitz, and her brother Philip, whose resemblance to his father is remarkable. The two are photographed side by side, both shirtless, arms folded, and staring straight into the camera. The sameness of their poses and the exact same expressions on their faces only enhances the resemblance between father and son. It’s as though the father was being photographed alongside his former self. But this is not trick photography. It is the passing of DNA from one generation to another, for many of us our only comfort as we see our own bodies decline and feel the breath of mortality on our necks. The dual themes of the body’s journey towards death, and the acts of renewal (including portraits of the births of Annie’s children) are explored throughout the exhibition, but in this particular photo, we see both at work at the same moment in time. We see the life cycle, the vigor of youth side by side with the weakening flesh of old age.

The story we are being told by the images Ms. Leibovitz has chosen is a superficial one really, much like the superficial nature of the images themselves. It’s a story about the body—that most essential of surfaces—that ends up involving itself, quite matter-of-factly, and quite unobtrusively, in a story about sentiment as well. It’s the age-old story that begins with birth and ends in death, the endlessly mundane and yet still endlessly sorrowful tale of the aging of the body, its inevitable decline, the sorrow that comes with the loss of loved ones, and the gift of resurrection through our children. But the story creeps up on us; it’s told almost without our awareness, up until the final room where it is all made obvious, with the photos of death and birth side by side.

One wonders if this story could be told with such profundity without the imposing giants of the celebrity photographs that protrude among the personal pictures of Annie’s family. It’s an interesting question to ponder, especially when we consider how the celebrity photos mediate our reaction to the personal pictures, how they add another layer of signs for our interpretation.

Selections from Annie Leibovitz’s carefully staged studio portraits of celebrities are blown up for the exhibition. Originally magazine size, here they are given the dimensions of large museum oil paintings. They are enormous in comparison to the personal photos, many of which are kept roughly to the typical 4 by 6 size found in a family photo album. The personal pictures seem shockingly small for a museum exhibit even without the comparison. You can barely see anything in some of them, much like the faded, unfocused pictures of our own lives.

Celebrity is a part of all of our lives, and its inclusion here can be seen as a comment on our current culture’s fascination with the rich and famous. We identify with celebrity, we compare our lives to theirs; we often live out our fantasies vicariously through them. At the extreme, we even distract ourselves from the banality, the pain and suffering of our own lives through our vicarious identification with celebrity.

At the very least, we are surrounded by celebrity culture every day. The media enhances their lives beyond perspective—it is what has fueled Ms. Leibovitz’s career—so that our own lives feel dwarfed in comparison, much like the exhibit’s huge museum-size portraits dwarf the family snapshots. The contrast is jarring, made even more so by Ms. Leibovitz’s famous attention to detail in the set design and poses of her subjects in her professional work, and the noticeable lack of attention in the family pictures. The personal pictures are well composed, but there is no artistry to them, certainly no fanfare. They could easily have been taken by an amateur.

One effect of this juxtaposition is to give the celebrity pictures the aura of artifacts, of museum pieces, and the personal photos thereby take on an even more intimate quality—they feel more “real” in their display as family snapshots, hidden as they are behind the glare of the blatantly “exposed” celebrities. The celebrity photos also allow periodic distractions from the personal pictures. The combination of the two worlds, in effect, mimics everyday life, which is also a similar series of personal events constantly overlaid with public ones, whether from reading the newspaper, watching a movie, or even thumbing through a celebrity magazine at the grocery store.

At times I felt as though I often do when I go to an open house that is for sale, a favorite pastime of mine. Initially, I go to the house to take in the beauty of its architecture, the aesthetic of its interior design, but I am inevitably drawn to what books are on the shelves, the bedside picture frames, the cluttered drawers and stuffed medicine cabinets, trying to figure out what the people who live there are like. Much like our invitation to look inside a stranger’s home up for sale, the celebrity photos may lure us in, but it’s what is behind them, what is in the medicine cabinet, that our attention inevitably turns to.

And what we find in these personal pictures is pretty ordinary, much like the ordinary snapshots all of us have stuffed in boxes and family albums. Once their artistic merit is put aside, we can concentrate on their significance as pieces of a story. There are the obvious mementos of times of great joy and deep sorrow, and there are the pictures of Susan Sontag. It is Annie’s relationship with Susan that peeks the viewer’s curiosity most, and we strain to know more about it through the clues these pictures provide. Theirs always seemed a fascinating though enigmatic coupling to me. Susan Sontag was an intellectual, an activist, a phenomenal thinker whose gift with words, both in conversation and on the page, was extraordinary. Annie, on the other hand, is a commercial photographer whose name is synonymous with the exploitation of celebrity, and although her photographs are artistically produced, they are not considered demonstrations of profound thought. Annie herself has admitted that she wishes her commercial work had more substance, more meaning. From what I’ve read about their relationship, Annie seemed to be the one who revered Susan, and was even intimidated by her famous intellect. Susan, perhaps, found Annie refreshingly physical, strong, attractive—Ms. Leibovitz is a tall, big-boned gal—and young. (The difference in their ages was important; they met in the late 1980s, when Susan was already in her mid-fifties, and Annie was not quite 40). Susan was also a great lover of photography, as evidenced by her writings on it. We can assume that she was drawn to Annie’s life as a photographer. We can also surmise from what little we know that Susan’s influence on Annie was more as mentor and companion than muse. There are a few nude photos, but most of the pictures of Susan feel more rote than inspired, such as the pictures of Susan during their various trips together.

The pictures that describe an intimate, caring relationship between the two women are interesting in their lack of overt demonstration. But they are there in their subtle nature. The most effective is the one of Susan sprawled on a couch, asleep like a cat in the sun. A particularly interesting choice is the picture marking Susan’s 60th birthday—one that is revealing in its absence of people—a postcard-size photo of the Nile at sunset taken from the hotel balcony where they were staying. Susan took the picture, and its odd inclusion here is a sign of Annie’s respect for Susan as a private person, coupled with a need to somehow commemorate such a momentous passing into old age. Annie does so by choosing a symbol of Susan’s curiosity about the world, her urge to travel, her lust for exploration. Its inclusion points to Annie’s admiration, and a respect for Susan’s preference to turn the camera away from herself and focus it on the world that fascinated her so.

Not so the photos of Susan fighting for her life. The most intimate photos in the exhibit, and the most controversial, explore a very personal, and inevitably lonely, journey towards death—the most private act of all. Unlike the discrete representation of a momentous passage into her 60th year, these photos spare us no detail in their unblinking look at Susan’s dying. There are two sets of pictures that bear witness to the two final battles Susan had with cancer, the uterine cancer that she successfully fought in 1998, and the blood disease that not only killed her, but left her body unrecognizably distorted. There is a heartbreaking last testament to the famous mane of hair shown in all its glory before the chemo did its job, and the effect is one of great sorrow. But the ravages caused by the final illness, and Susan’s decision to fight it with every technological innovation available to her, are almost macabre. Here we see death at its most cruel.

Would the exhibit be as powerful without the inclusion of the photos of Susan’s and Samuel Leibovitz’s deaths? They are the testimony of the final act of compassion that those who remain give the loved one. It is the unflinching duty to be there right up to the end, to follow them to the very last breath, no matter how little is left that remains of who they once were. The last month of my mother’s life, she already looked like a corpse. Her body’s journey beyond death was being played out right in front of us. There was a sore on her wrist that had refused to heal, and the wound was left open; peering into this tiny orifice, I saw nothing but the black shadow of decay. When I saw the pictures of Annie’s father and Susan transformed by death’s hand, I thought of my own mother, and I immediately knew why Annie included these pictures. Our connection to our loved ones is so primal, that we cannot relinquish it even in death. The image of my mother on her deathbed is imprinted in my brain almost like a talisman. It is not there for assuagement; on the contrary, it is a horrible image. But I cherish it nonetheless, without understanding completely why. Perhaps because it evokes a wellspring of emotion, an indulgence that I am drawn to, even though it is one of great sadness. Perhaps it is the acceptance of death, of letting go, that evokes a feeling of transcendence, of peace. Perhaps it is the com
ort of knowing I was there to say goodbye. These feelings came to me again as I was looking at the photographs of Susan and Samuel Leibovitz at their own end.

Near the end of the exhibit, after being surrounded by pictures of birth and death, the portrait of Annie’s three-year-old daughter Sarah like a beacon to guide us through the suffering of the two dying persons on either side, I came to the picture Annie had taken of Susan’s shell collection, and I started to cry. The emotional experience was overwhelming. I had come to see pictures, and I ended up seeing a life, and it felt like my own. It is not any one of these pictures that can stand up as great art, but it is the story they tell in their juxtaposition, akin to the frames that make up a movie, that makes this show a powerful work of art.

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