Saturday, October 13, 2007

Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer's Life, 1990-2005

Sometimes the surface is as interesting as getting to the heart of the matter - A. Leibovitz

While I’m not an Annie Leibovitz fanatic like some people I know, I’ve always had an appreciation for her work, and I loved the portraits she took for Vanity Fair’s Africa issue. She came to town this week for the opening of her exhibit at the Corcoran – "Annie Leibovitz, A Photographer’s Life, 1990-2005," opened today — and she gave a tour of the show at the media preview. The event was unparalleled — seeing an artist discuss her experience with taking the photographs and her interactions with her subjects, along with deeply personal stories, provided an insight into her work that I don’t think could be achieved in any other way.

The exhibit is arranged by pairing commissioned and personal photographs, in a way that reflects what was going on in Leibovitz's life at the time. One of the goals of the exhibit is to connect us to the people we all have in common — an extended cultural family of celebrity is often all we share with someone who lives half a world away. For example, a picture of Leibovtiz’s father and brother, taken in Silver Spring, — a “very happy moment,” she called it — hangs next to a photograph of Demi Moore pregnant with her first child — the pairing evokes ideas about family, especially parent-child relationships, and speaks to intimacy and human connection.

The most moving parts of the morning were when Leibovitz mentioned Susan Sontag, her partner of 15 years, who died in 2004. Leibovitz said that when assembling the book of photographs that would eventually become this exhibit, she worked “as if Susan were behind me telling me what to put in and what to leave out,” adding that that was what Sontag did with Leibovitz’s work while she was alive. There is a series of photographs taken while Susan was ill in the hospital — photographs that Leibovitz says she forced herself to take, in order to remember some of Susan’s last moments, because she tends not to take many candid shots of her family.

The photograph of Mikhail Baryshnikov prompted a long story from Leibovitz about how her mother studied dance under Martha Graham, and Leibovitz cultivated an interest in modern dance. She spent 3-4 weeks at Baryshnikov’s gathering of older dancers, in an attempt to recreate the relationship between Graham and Barbara Morgan, a photographer who took many pictures of Graham. Leibovitz’s photos of dance tend to be stills, since she said, “you can do a portrait of dance, but not dance itself,” adding that she took some photos in blur to try to capture some physical dance moves.

photographed George W. Bush with his cabinet, a picture I find strangely compelling, given my distaste for Bush. The photographs were taken at the beginning of internal dissension, and Bush appears cocky, with a stiff stance, and she said the whole group was very proud of itself. Leibovitz warned against over-politicizing pictures and discussed the importance of not always overlooking the superficial in portraits, and searching for something that may not exist — “Sometimes the surface is as interesting as getting to the heart of the matter,” she said.

The commissioned pictures are much larger than the personal photographs, so the viewer will walk up close, making it more intimate, Leibovitz said. “I’m proud of the work, but it’s also very personal,” she said, “I do ask myself — ‘why did I do this?’”

“A Photographer’s Life” runs through January 13 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St., NW.

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