Thursday 13 November 2008

Life through a lens

Annie Leibowitz; A Photographer's Life, 1990-2005, National Portrait Gallery, London

Celebrity photographs are such a regular part of our lives that we almost take them for granted. Unless we’re suckers for celebrity culture, we regard them - at best - as providing transient interest. At worst, we mentally swat them away like flies. If we bother to think about their producers - the photographers - we probably expect they exist in some sort of snapper heaven, getting glamour by proxy. Annie Leibowitz has been in the hot celebrity pits trade for almost 40 years, but this exhibition shows her life has not just been about catching a bit of the illumination from the golden glamour of the red carpet.

Leibowitz’s output has been prodigious. Born in Connecticut in 1949, she started her artistic career studying painting at the San Francisco Art Institute, but a Japanese holiday where she became interested in taking photographs led to her signing up for night classes in photography. Taken on in 1970 by Jann Wenner, editor of then-hip magazine Rolling Stone, she was given the assignment of photographing John Lennon, starting her career behind the lens in earnest. Two years later, she became Rolling Stone’s chief photographer. She was also official photographer for the 1975 Rolling Stones’ World Tour. In 1981 she had a further career advance when she photographed a nude Lennon and fully-clothed Yoko Ono for Rolling Stone. This photo was used for the commemorative edition of the magazine to mark Lennon’s death: in 2005, the American Society of Magazine Editors would proclaim this to be best magazine cover from the past 40 years. Two years after the fatal shooting of Lennon, her first book, Annie Leibowitz: Photographs, appeared. In that same year she achieved another first: she joined Vanity Fair, becoming that magazine’s first contributing photographer.

So the exhibition gives us the celebrity stuff we expect. Or does it? For the unexpected lurks here. We see Cindy Crawford, photographed in New York in 1993, with a snake round her shoulders, her hand over her pubic mound, her expression a conflicting mixture of confidence and wariness. A year later we see Johnny Depp and Kate Moss in New York’s Royalton Hotel. Depp lies on top of Moss with an expression bordering on adoration whilst the girl from Croydon seems to be trying to keep a straight face. In the same year, Leibowitz’s lens captures Brad Pitt, clad in a half-open striped shirt and leopard skin leggings, sprawling with unexpected campness on a dishevelled bed in Las Vegas. From 1991 we see the famous photo of Demi Moore pregnant with Scout Laurue Willis, with the actress placing one hand under her stomach, the other over her nearest breast. But we also see Bruce Willis and Demi Moore pregnant with Rumer Glenn Willis from 1998, with a sharp contrast caused by the sight of Willis’ hairy hands covering Moore’s pregnant stomach. (These are pictures which are arguably groundbreaking by showing an explicit link between sexuality and pregnancy that mainstream photographers have shied away from.)

Performance artist, club host and Lucien Freud muse Leigh Bowery emerges from a 1993 photograph as a prancing - almost jerky - yet sinuous black latex-clad silhouetted figure. Nearby is lighting equipment which emphasises that both the photograph and its subject are the result of technical performances. Four years later we see novelist and short story writer Eudora Welty at home, with bright, alert eyes that show a wariness of intrusion - probably the product of a lifetime’s experience of being in the public eye. Leibowitz gives us formal politics in the form of the ‘Cabinet Room, The White House, Washington DC December 2001’. Here, President George W Bush doesn’t know whether to smile or look resolute, Condoleeza Rice seems quietly tough, scepticism hovers over the face of General Colin Powell (about the war? About what he may perceive as a waste of his time?) but for the rest of Bush’s cabinet members… well, the term ‘used car salesmen’ comes to mind. But Leibowitz also displays the practical outcome of politics: ‘Sarajevo: Fallen bicycle of teenage boy just killed by sniper’ (1994)shows the overturned bike and a wide skid-mark of fresh, thick blood. In 1989, Leibowitz had met the legendary cultural commentator Susan Sontag - famous for her 1964 essay Notes on Camp which, arguably, marked the emergence of homosexuality as a topic for investigation into the cultural mainstream and which would act as both a sourcebook and template for future gay studies - eventually beginning a relationship with her. It was Sontag’s influence that resulted in the photographer visiting Sarajevo during the conflict in the Balkans.

For Leibowitz, Sontag wasn’t simply a behind-the-scenes motivator. She was a subject, too. ‘Susan Sontag at Petra, Jordan’ 1994 captures Leibowitz’s lover caught in a cleft of rock in front a facade of the abandoned, mysterious city. One on level Sontag is a small figure, yet she’s at the centre of the photo: privacy and explicitness combine here. Leibowitz’s family is featured, too. ‘My Parents, Peter’s Pond Beach, Wainscott, Long Island’ 1992 shows her parents in exuberant mode on the beach. It contrasts with the more restrained ‘My Mother and Father in the Cottage’ of 1997. Here, her parents are both in a bedroom: her father looks cautiously back at the camera as he gets out of bed whilst her mother hunkers down into her pillow. Perhaps being on camera doesn’t always have its attractions, whoever may be behind the lens. Leibowitz’s output shows no sign of coming to a halt. Her work has appeared in Vogue, The New York Times, and The New Yorker. She has been made a Commandeur des Order des Arts et des Lettres by the French government and recognised as a Living Legend by the Library of Congress. In 2007 her career was marred by a blip when she was involved in a television documentary which appeared to show the Queen storming-out of a photographic session with her. The head of Peter Fincham - a BBC controller - rolled for that gaffe, but Leibowitz managed to rise above the controversy with skillful words of praise for the Queen.

But does Leibowitz’s outstanding career help answer the question about how seriously we can take posed photographs? No: the argument about photographic authenticity will go on and on. Meanwhile her work continues to show that the posed - the false, if you like - can help to reveal the truth, and that its ‘creators can capture the uncomfortable and the intimate, too. We can’t make snap judgement on snappers… well, certainly not this one.

Ends 1 February 2009

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