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Interesting angles, but hardly revealing

Annie Leibovitz's exhibit adds personal photos to her usual celebrity shots. But the result is strikingly unremarkable.

March 07, 2007|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

Credit Dorothea Lange with the maternal icon of the early 20th century: her 1936 "Migrant Mother," all hunger and grit, vulnerability and perseverance.

Credit Annie Leibovitz with photography's late 20th century counterpart: Demi Moore pregnant, all skin and diamonds, glamorously healthy and sexy, earth mother for a more perfect planet.

Leibovitz's photograph appears early in the mildly enjoyable, slightly exasperating exhibition "Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer's Life, 1990-2005" at the San Diego Museum of Art. Another image of Moore, made a few years earlier when she was pregnant with her first child, opens the show, jump-starting it with a jolt of intimacy and universality. In the earlier image, Moore's then-husband Bruce Willis embraces her from behind, his strong fingers loosely forming a heart across her belly. There are no faces here, no carefully crafted personas, just the archetypal trinity of man, woman and child.

Images of such timeless power are anomalies in Leibovitz's work, driven as it is by the cult of celebrity, a fickle, fleeting force. As one of the chief iconographers of our age, Leibovitz is in the business of amplifying personality. Her photographs -- for Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and others -- show us what we already suspect about their invulnerably dashing subjects, in graphically compressed form with a pinch of cleverness.

The exhibition, however, was conceived to also show us what we don't already know. Organized by the Brooklyn Museum of Art and heading from San Diego to numerous points domestic and abroad, "A Photographer's Life" pairs Leibovitz's professional assignments with pictures of her family, friends and travels not made for publication.

The show unfolds like a chronicle. Each year in the exhibition's scope is represented by large celebrity portraits, mostly in color, and small black-and-white prints from the private side of the photographer's life. The integration promises insights and resonances but instead delivers a surprising and disappointing revelation: Much of Leibovitz's personal work reads as celebrity portraiture too. Why? Because her companion of more than a dozen years, Susan Sontag, happened to be a famous intellectual, and because the pictures of her aren't interesting for any other reason.

Woven through the show are images of Sontag soaking in the tub, wandering among the grand ruins of Petra, seated across the breakfast table at a Venice hotel, hair rumpled and robe askew, the unmade bed a background blur. These are privileged views, made from the perspective of a close companion and infused with private significance, but visually they tend to be ordinary, unremarkable but for the fizz that Sontag's fame injects in them.

In her introduction to the book accompanying the show (a 472-page behemoth, with more than twice the exhibition's 200 pictures), Leibovitz says she doesn't take many personal photographs. The lack of urgency shows. She's not taking pictures of her family and of Sontag as a means of probing the dynamics of relationships and entwined identities. The pictures aren't Leibovitz's navigational tools, her way of processing the human drama the way Sally Mann's are, or Emmet Gowin's or any number of other photographers who've focused part of their attention on the domestic sphere. The pictures are simply tender relics, prolonged stares at precious moments of family togetherness.

Leibovitz's professional work tests convention more regularly and more fruitfully. We are more detached from the subjects, positioned as audience before a shallow stage, but we're given more for the eye to savor. If the personal work reads as mundane goings-on behind the scenes, the celebrity portraiture is the main-stage attraction.

Many of the images are quite simple, shot in the pared-down studio style of Nadar, photographer to the stars of 19th century French culture. Character emerges through posture and dress (as in centuries of painting precedents) but mostly through expression in the eyes and hands.

Leibovitz is known for the graphic punch of her portraits. At their best, they activate the page like exclamation points. Bill T. Jones leaps, nude, before a stark white backdrop, turning into a calligraphic cipher of energy and insistence. Brad Pitt in leopard-print pants and leather boots sprawls across the lurid, tomato-red bedspread of a Las Vegas hotel room, the whole scene queasily overripe.

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