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Sunday, 7 December 2008

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

What most people know of Annie Leibovitz is her prolific work for Vanity Fair magazine. Iconic portrait after iconic portrait of ever-more iconic sitters: from George W. Bush to John Lennon, from R2D2 to Leonardo DiCaprio, from Cindy Crawford to Queen Elizabeth II, from Demi Moore to Patti Smith. They are all here. However, it is the other stuff, Leibovitz’s more personal work – of her parents, of her children, of her lover, Susan Sontag – that gives the National Portrait Gallery in London’s current photographic exhibition real depth.

This show, beautifully curated by Charlotta Kotik and coordinated by Susan Bloom, first opened in 2006 at the Brooklyn Museum and has since appeared in San Diego, Atlanta, Washington D.C., San Francisco, Paris and, after London, will appear in Berlin. The success of the exhibition is evident in the string of renowned galleries and museums that have taken it on, and it doesn’t take a lot to see why they have done so.
Kotik’s successful blending of Leibovitz’s highly recognisable, super-glossy Vanity Fair images with her unknown and very personal works is perfectly executed. We see intimate snaps of Susan Sontag in the same series as a one of Leibovitz’s most famous celebrity shots: the pregnant Demi Moore. This could be jarring, but rather feels like it shouldn’t be any other way, a revelation rather than an obscuration. The personal works actually inform the professional works, giving them a resonance that perhaps wouldn’t otherwise be felt or recognised.

Likewise, we see how the professional works have affected the personal ones. Leibovitz’s relationship with Sontag, Sontag’s death in 2004, the death of her father, her relationship with her children and her relationship with celebrity over the past thirty years, are revealed to be intrinsically linked, each making up a very important part of Leibovitz’s oeuvre and, accordingly, life. This linkage is enhanced by the arrangement of works by feeling, rather than date, subject or genre. Kotik has allowed (no doubt with the input of Leibovitz herself) the emotion conjured by a photograph to precede any sort of curatorial dogma, which often dictates how a photographic exhibit is arranged.

Somehow, the pieces of the jigsaw are made to fit, with even the gigantic landscapes Leibovitz did for Conde Nast Traveller becoming personally relevant through the story Leibovitz tells of their conception. They, like all the works, only add further insight and scope to the exhibition, further depth to this very personal and profound portrait of A Photographer’s Life.

Perhaps the key to the exhibition’s success is the scrapbook room in which small prints of Leibovitz’s work have been tacked to a pin-board. This room, almost completely lined with (relatively) tiny Leibovitz works, is the nucleus of the exhibition. It contains personal photographs, out-takes from epic shoots for Vanity Fair and Vogue, and variations on works in the exhibit. The near-casual nature of their display (though I’m sure it’s well thought-out) encourages the feeling that this is a very personal display; even perhaps that Leibovitz has herself chosen where each photo will be tacked. This furthers the idea – whether grounded or not – that we are here privy to something quite personal: the inner workings of one of the world’s great living photographers.

All this begs the question, however; what is this exhibition about? Is it about Annie Leibovitz, the photographer, or about Annie Leibovitz, the woman? Is it Annie Leibovitz we are after, or is it her photographs? Why does it seem to work so well, having personal images alongside professional ones? Is Leibovitz’s life to be reduced to her photographs? Or are her photographs raised to the level of a life? Perhaps it is both: The photographs are her life and her life is the photographs.

Whatever it is, there is something here that is often missing from exhibitions: the feeling that the Great Artist is a person, just like us. Consequently, we feel a sense of accord with this illustrious acknowledgement of Leibovitz’s work and life. Likewise a comfort that there are two things that render us all equal: love and death.

Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life, 1990-2005 runs until 1 February, 2009. For more information visit

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