When I think of Annie Leibovitz, I think of the transformation of celebrities into iconic images. A nude and pregnant Demi Moore (dripping with diamonds) on the cover of Vanity Fair comes to mind. So do the recent pictures of Suri Cruise with her doting parents, Tom and Katie. If you’re somebody, Annie Leibovitz must take your photograph, and your photograph begins to represent what we all hope is real—some kind of ephemeral and beautiful existence that transcends the moment the image was captured.
But when I went to see Annie Leibovitz’s A Photographer’s Life: 1990–2005 exhibition at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, what struck me were her personal photographs—a picture of her partner, author Susan Sontag, getting her hair shaved off while undergoing chemotherapy; snapshots of her mother dancing on the beach; and pictures of the birth of her children (the first of whom, Sarah, was born when Annie was fifty-one).
The most startling picture was one of her father lying in bed just after he died. Annie captures her father’s sunken eyes and cavernous nose, the age spots on his skin, and his thin frame carefully tucked underneath a blanket. I cannot imagine the courage it takes to take a photo of your father just after he has passed on to another world.
Of photographing death and illness, Annie told the High Museum: “One doesn’t stop seeing. One doesn’t stop framing. It doesn’t turn off and turn on. You find yourself reverting to what you know. You go back into yourself. You don’t really know quite what you’re doing. I didn’t really analyze it. I felt driven to do it.”
Dot Paul, a professional photographer from Athens, Georgia, said photographing something very personal can make dealing with the situation both easier to handle and harder to grasp. “Sometimes the camera creates not only a physical, but a mental shield for the photographer and therefore when you’re shooting, you’re not really experiencing the situation you are shooting—you are only a third party documentarian,” Dot writes in an email after seeing the exhibit. “Yet, when something is so hard to look at or grasp, it makes it much easier to deal with when you photograph it because somehow the camera also makes you much more compassionate.”
Sometimes a photo changes meaning over the years. You may now know something important that you didn’t know at the time it was taken. I think of pictures of a rowdy evening when I was eighteen and had just graduated from high school. A large group of my friends went to Cancun, and at the end of a very long evening, in which several jubilant photos were taken, one of our friends fell off a balcony and died of brain injuries shortly afterward. Those naïve photographs are now difficult to look at, and to me, the jolly poses have turned sinister.
One of the most striking photographs in the exhibit is of Susan Sontag in Petra, Jordan. It was 1994, ten years before Susan succumbed to cancer, but Annie says that her partner’s fate is now obvious in this photo. Annie writes that Petra, an ancient city in southern Jordan, is in a valley surrounded by dramatic mountains, and to visit, you must go through a “long, narrow sandstone gorge that opens up suddenly to a view of a huge classical façade carved into a cliff.”
Susan stood in the opening of the gorge, a tiny, black figure dwarfed by a brightly lit frieze and the black opening of the gorge. Annie writes: “In retrospect, the photograph is about the smallness of individual life. And since the façade is covered in funerary symbols, and since it was probably used as a tomb or a mausoleum, the picture sounds the themes of death and grief …”
The intensely personal photographs depicting her personal loves and losses are haunting, juxtaposed with celebrity photographs and hung for all to see on a museum’s walls. The exhibit does not separate the personal from the professional, instead preferring to commingle them until you wonder who is who and which is which. A portrait of Annie’s mom—Annie writes that her mother, who was in her seventies, was nervous that she would look old—becomes iconic, and soars above the pictures of Leonardo DiCaprio, Nicole Kidman, Brad Pitt, and George W. Bush.
Annie’s family and friends become heroes—flawed, sick, wrinkled, and sometimes sad, but still heroic.
See related stories:
Focus on Children
Wendy Ewald: Changing Our World One Child at a Time
My Parents with My Sisters Paula and Barbara and Paula’s Son, Peter’s Pond Beach, Wainscott, Long Island, 1992
Photograph © Annie Leibovitz
From Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life, 1995–2005