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Essentially Annie

Leibovitz's photo book is a provocative splash of celebrity shots with a personal touch.

October 11, 2006|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

New York — AS she began sifting through an archive of her photographs from the last 15 years, Annie Leibovitz looked into the lens of her life and was startled by what she saw.

On one wall of a barn in upstate New York, she had pinned shots from her magazine assignments -- celebrity portraits that have become icons of American pop culture and have made her one of the world's best-known photographers. On another wall were more personal pictures, including stark images taken two years ago, when her father and her longtime friend, the writer and intellectual Susan Sontag, both lay dying.

"I was just so overwhelmed by what I was finding in the personal work, because this is who I am," said Leibovitz, who spent last year sorting through the pictures and has just published a provocative mix of these personal and celebrity shots in "A Photographer's Life: 1990-2005."

The work for Vanity Fair magazine and other publications seemed troublingly formal and less intimate, she said, adding: "I could barely look at the assignment wall." She's proud of this work, Leibovitz hastened to add. But, she said ruefully, she wished it "had more meaning. Had more substance."

That's a remarkable admission for an artist whose public persona is wrapped up in the high-gloss, high-end celebrity pictures she has taken for nearly 40 years.

Beginning with her photos for Rolling Stone in the 1970s, Leibovitz has produced some of the most memorable images in recent history: a naked John Lennon curled around Yoko Ono, taken hours before he was killed; a naked and very pregnant Demi Moore staring boldly into the camera; Whoopi Goldberg in a tub filled with milk; and most recently, the much ballyhooed photo of Suri Cruise, with her parents, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, on the cover of Vanity Fair.

As she sat in her Greenwich Village office last week, Leibovitz, a tall, imposing woman with long, graying blond hair, struggled to explain her feelings about the photos she decided to turn into a book. She said that death -- and birth -- have changed everything.

The death of Sontag in December 2004, and that of Leibovitz's father a few weeks later, were followed months later by the births of Leibovitz's twin daughters, via a surrogate mother. Leibovitz, who is unmarried, had become pregnant with donated sperm with her oldest daughter in 2001, when she was 51.

Silence briefly filled the room when she suggested that people should experience death earlier, so they would know how important it is to show kindness to one another. Had she any regrets in her own life? Leibovitz left the question dangling, brushed her hair back and changed the subject.

"It's great to stop every 15 to 20 years and take a look at the work you have, and I didn't have a clue this time about how much of the personal work I really had," she said quietly. "These pictures are based on relationships and have time invested in them."

Leibovitz called such photos "reportage," saying she had taken them spontaneously, reacting to life as it happens. In her book, the images also include scenes of Sarajevo during the Bosnian war -- including a child's bicycle smashed on a blood-smeared pavement -- and images of the still-smoldering World Trade Center.

But it's the pictures of Sontag that stand out. "A Photographer's Life" begins with a 1990 image of the writer, staring into the light from a darkened chasm in Jordan. The book goes on to chronicle Leibovitz's years with Sontag, whom she met in the late 1980s.

Despite rumors that they were intimately involved, Leibovitz has long called Sontag a friend, resisting terms like "companion" or "partner."

The good times -- trips abroad, life at home in their neighboring New York apartments -- give way to pictures of Sontag's grueling bout with cancer in 1998, which she survived, and her last struggle.

A grief-stricken Leibovitz took only a few pictures of the writer's last days. The overall effect is to show Sontag's slow transformation from a vital, outspoken person into a weary, exhausted patient.

Leibovitz consulted with Sontag's family and those close to the writer, including her literary agent, Andrew Wylie, before including the pictures in her book.

"There were a lot of discussions" about using the material, she said, choosing her words carefully and declining to be more specific.

"That was probably the most difficult decision for me, to go ahead. Susan was very private. I wouldn't even be looking at these pictures if she didn't die. But she's dead," Leibovitz said, her voice quavering. "I think she would love it. She'd be very proud of it.... She would have been proud of me."

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