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Her shots are seen round the world

Photographer Annie Leibovitz is the unpretentious subject of a friendly documentary.

January 03, 2007|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

"Are you the biggest photographer in the world? Do you have the belt?" comedian Chris Rock asks Annie Leibovitz in a scene from "Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens," tonight's season-closing installment of the PBS series "American Masters."

An apparently likable person who does not seem the least bit precious or pretentious about what she does (the only time she uses the word "art" is when discussing her early intention to become an art teacher), Leibovitz made her name shooting mostly for Rolling Stone in the 1970s and '80s and Vanity Fair from 1983 on. If you have seen nothing else she's done, you likely have encountered her photograph of a naked, pregnant Demi Moore and her double portrait of a naked John Lennon and clothed Yoko Ono, taken hours before Lennon's murder.

Her pictures break down roughly into those taken without preconception or preparation, shot with available light as unobtrusively as possible -- the sort that defined her early rock-centric career -- and those where the concept precedes the shutter-click. These later pictures are highly constructed and may require dozens of assistants to execute; they can lack the raw energy of her more immediate early work but are reliably gorgeous and are the pillar of her reputation, in any case. There are also photos of family and friends not originally meant for publication, and lesser seen late-career pictures of a war-torn Sarajevo, where she traveled with vaguely defined, fiercely photogenic significant other Susan Sontag, one of several mentors who have kept her honest and ambitious. (She seems to be naturally hard-working.) Gloria Steinem calls her "the tallest and the most authoritative insecure person I've ever seen."

The film more or less shuttles back and forth between chronological biography and new footage of the photographer at work on current projects. There are home movies aplenty and some revealing footage shot around the Rolling Stone offices in 1973 by the video collective TVTV, intercut with Leibovitz on recent assignment for Vanity Fair and Vogue, shooting George Clooney in Hollywood and Kirsten Dunst at Versailles; she has a clear talent for getting the shot she wants, directing celebrities to move fractionally this way or that, but worries as well that the magazine and her work for it became more "glitzy" than she was promised or could have expected.

Leibovitz was first attracted to photography as a way to be "alone in the world, but ... there with a purpose." It has allowed her to live inside many worlds, sometimes at her peril. (A stint as the official photographer of the 1975 Rolling Stones American tour got her started on a drug habit, one which she has long since overcome.) Mikhail Baryshnikov, Patti Smith, Tina Brown, Robert Wilson, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Arnold Schwarzenegger (whom Leibovitz photographed as a young bodybuilder) and Keith Richards, who can barely remember being photographed at all, all have something good to say here about the photographer and her work.

This is a friendly document, perhaps made friendlier by the fact that it was directed by sister Barbara Leibovitz -- there is only one, briefly heard, mildly dissenting art-critical voice here -- but "American Masters" is a series made in tribute. It is friendly by nature.


'American Masters -- Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens'

Where: KCET

When: 9 to 10:30 tonight

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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