Annie Leibovitz at The Corcoran Gallery of Art

Annie Leibovitz is an icon of modern photography. Building her career from scratch, she has become one of the most recognized, sought after, and important photographers in the world. Over the span of her career she has photographed countless celebrities including Demi Moore, Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Al Pacino, Robert Dinero, and Scarlett Johansson. She has worked for such magazines as Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, and Vogue and created ad campaigns for The Gap, American Express, and the Milk Board. She was designated a “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress and Smithsonian Magazine has called her one of the “innovators of our time”. She has photographed the last two sitting presidents and many of their cabinet members. Hell, she recently photographed the Queen of England claiming that “they had fun” during the shoot. When asked by a reporter if she has a “dream shoot”, that is someone she’s been dying to work with, she sort of scoffed at the question. From a professional photographer’s point of view, her life has been a dream shoot.

A slice of that life, fifteen years of it to be exact, is on display in the form of a photography exhibit at The Corcoran Gallery of Art entitled, Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life, 1990-2005. The exhibit merges photos that have made her famous with those that show a glimpse into her every day life, the photos that have paid the bills with the those that are dear to her heart. You’ll find a portrait of her father and brother next to a shot of very nude, very pregnant Demi Moore. You’ll find a photo of her daughter next to a picture of R2D2. And in what appears to be the glue of this body of work, you’ll find photos that share the life and death of her longtime partner and lover, Susan Sontag.

The exhibit, born out Leibovitz’s mourning for her father and Susan, as well as the birth of her children, represents a timeline of her life commingled with a timeline of the world. Her personal photos, those of her family and loved ones, are “punctuated” by pictures of celebrities as well as photos of historic moments. She took on this project as a way of dealing with her life and emotions at the time, but repeatedly says that if she were given the choice to do it all over again, she would not. Exposing her personal life to the public eye seemed like a good way of coping at the time, but now she has to relive some very emotional moments every time she views her work.

Not only are the photos in her exhibit a mixture of private and public images, they’re also a mixture of quality. As an aspiring photographer, some of her photos left me in awe of her talent. Her recent photos of the Queen and a photo of Jack White (The White Stripes) are exemplary masterpieces, while some photos of her family on the beach could have been taken by anyone with a point and shoot camera. I had to keep reminding my critical eye that this exhibit has a purpose, and that is to show a slice of life through her camera’s viewfinder. After all, not every photograph has to be print worthy as long as it has a purpose and holds meaning to the photographer. For Leibovitz, who was obviously present for every photo taken in the exhibit, there is little that distinguishes one from the next. “I don’t have two lives,” she says. “This is one life, and the personal pictures and the assignment work are all part of it.”

Annie Leibovitz herself is a bit of a dichotomy. On one hand you can tell that she knows just who she is and what she stands for in the world of photography. She had handlers to end the Q&A session (“Thank you all for coming.”). At one point she became frustrated with a reporter’s redundant question by asking, “Did you just get here?” and moved on to the next question. Yet on the other hand she is very humble and down to earth, with her signature eyeglasses, straw-like hair, loose fitting purple shirt, black pants pulled up high with no belt, and blue Nike running shoes with red shoelaces – fashion plate she is not. I didn’t know what to make of it when she said, “I’m not much of a setup photographer, but I do my best.” Many of us try to do our best, but few have work like hers to show for it.

I continue to wonder just how much of her finished photographs are a direct result of her work and her input. Take any of her Vanity Fair cover shots for example. She most likely didn’t contact the celebrity herself to line up the shoot, her people did. She probably didn’t pick their wardrobe, give much input on their makeup, and more than likely didn’t even set up the lighting on the shoot (although she may have made some adjustments when she arrived on the set). She probably posed her subject and gave them their “motivation”, came up with the overall story that she wanted to portray with the shoot, and of course she pressed the shutter button on her (more than likely very expensive) camera. But once the shoot was over, what role did she play in getting the final image to the magazine’s cover? Does she make the final decision as to which photo to use? Quite possibly. Does she do any of the post processing work? My guess is no. For this exhibit, was she involved in the printing and framing process of each photo? My point is that a lot of what you see in her finished work was probably done by someone else, but regardless, when you see one of her photos it is unmistakably hers.

As I left the museum that day, one thing she said stuck in my mind and summarized how I believe she views her role in history and the world of photography. She was explaining to us the background of her photo of Bill Clinton in the Oval Office – a shot that doesn’t exactly exude her usual creativity. A reporter had asked her if she felt like she sometimes had to sacrifice her artistic side for such shots because let’s face it, when you’re the president of the United States, you are not likely to immerse yourself in a bathtub full of milk. Her response, simple and to the point, is that photographers sometimes have the job of documenting history, or as she said, “Someone has to do it, to document our time.”

Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life, 1990-2005 is showing at the Corcoran Gallery of Art until January 13, 2008. I highly recommend that you check it out.

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