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Photo Synthesis

Scarlett Johansson, Chateau Marmont, West Hollywood (2004)

February 04, 2007|Colin Westerbeck

"Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer's Life, 1990-2005" will be at the San Diego Museum of Art Feb. 10-April 22.

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What on earth is Scarlett Johansson wearing--or not wearing? Somewhere in between "Girl With a Pearl Earring" and "Match Point," Johansson went from a betrayed innocent to an irresistible vamp, a career move in the middle of which Annie Leibovitz captured her. Johansson looks like a Vegas showgirl sizing up some high roller who's flown her to L.A. for a one-night stand.

There's an edginess in Leibovitz's photographs between stripping down and playing dress-up; that is, the edge separating them is hard to find. I've always thought of the famous photograph of John Lennon curled up against Yoko Ono not as one where he's nude, but as one in which she's wearing him. Dress-up is what Leibovitz does best. She's a gifted photo-cartoonist. (Think of Steve Martin costumed as his Franz Kline painting or Christo wrapped like his own art projects).

Yet the hijinks have sometimes been haunted by death. Christo looks as if he's in a winding sheet, and Lennon was killed just hours after the portrait session. Aging, sickness and death are overpowering themes of this retrospective, in which the nudity turns into a nakedness before one's fate. Seeing pictures of Leibovitz's "lover" (her word) Susan Sontag, bereft not only of clothes but of her dignity as she dies from cancer, is almost unbearable.

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