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BOOK REVIEW

Sorry, nothing personal

In this collection, Leibovitz shares her photographs -- but precious little of herself.

December 21, 2008|Michael Roth | Roth is the president of Wesleyan University.

Annie Leibovitz

at Work

Annie Leibovitz

Random House: 240 pp., $40

Do we really need another book by Annie Leibovitz? That's what I asked myself as I began reading her newest volume, "Annie Leibovitz at Work." Her pictures are so well known, and she has collected them so many times, in so many different formats. Just a couple of years ago, two different friends gave me copies of "A Photographer's Life," her large-format catalog of images from 1990-2005. At the time, I sighed and wondered what all the fuss was about. But dipping into those images, I found that combination of stillness and silliness, of sweetness and irony, that makes her pictures so compelling. I don't want to like them as much as I do.

But do we really need another collection of hits from someone already so familiar? After all, is there any other photographer in America who is herself such a star, even when she is hanging out with our biggest celebrities? As a young artist in San Francisco in the late 1960s, Leibovitz was studying painting with the male modernists who were throwing their egos and their angst onto canvases. She took night classes in photography and tells us that she was too impatient to stick with painting. "Painting was isolating," she writes, and she wanted to be socialized. Boy, did she get her wish.

If you wanted to overcome artistic isolation in the late 1960s, then the rock-'n'-roll life was the ticket. Annie got what now seems like the dream job, shooting pictures for Rolling Stone. Her photos were published while she was still a student. She got the beat, the energy of the era, and her pictures appeared at exactly the right time. And that's been the story of her career as photographer: She catches the wave but is never too far ahead of the curve. She has nerve, to be sure, and her famous pictures of Whoopi Goldberg in a bath of milk, or of the gloriously pregnant Demi Moore, have become iconic without having been obvious. She didn't push the envelope, though; she just seemed to know exactly when to mail it in. She isn't the first to show that timing is everything in photography, but she is among those great glossy picture-makers whose timing is impeccable.

But do we really need another collection? She tells us about Hunter Thompson, Nixon's resignation, touring with the Rolling Stones, her fascination with the "peak performance of dancers and athletes (Carl Lewis as a god!) and about Queen Elizabeth II (a boring imitation of Helen Mirren). Leibovitz is unafraid of kitsch, and it's hard to tell whether this is because she is unpretentious or just undiscriminating. In this volume she sandwiches 10 pages on war and mass killing between "peak performance" and "O.J. Simpson." She writes about Sarajevo and Rwanda in much the same tone as she writes about John and Yoko or Nicole Kidman.

Still, she often makes great pictures, and perhaps it's her uncanny ability to frame the world that allows her to find an interesting image -- whether her magazine assignment focuses on Johnny Depp or genocide. The photographer doesn't seem to care, and her willful superficiality serves her (and her audience) well.

In collection after collection, we see the worlds Leibovitz has passed through, but we see little indication -- in the text, or in the progression of images -- of how she has been affected by what she has seen, by how she has lived. She shows so much and reveals so little. Her little stories of how she set up the shot, or about getting to know her subject, are often charming. Like her pictures, there is something irresistible about these naive tales. They are easy on the eyes and the mind, undemanding but not uninteresting.

Two pages of the new book concern her great companion of more than 15 years, the formidable Susan Sontag. They precede 18 pages devoted to Hollywood and the queen. In her 2005 collection, "A Photographer's Life," we were given a much more detailed, direct set of images of the last months of Sontag's life. That personal photographic effort would be out of sync with this book's focus on "work." For Leibovitz, work is the project she began in the heyday of pop culture and the 1960s. She chronicled some of our fantasies of public life, our fascinations and enthusiasms -- but rarely our loves or fears.

The rich and famous have felt comfortable with Leibovitz; their celebrity was validated by the woman who wanted their images to pop off the magazine page. As she became a celebrity in her own right, she became more than an accessory, she became a part of the branding of glamour and importance. Looking at her picture of the Bush team, full of itself in the late fall of 2001, we now see a gang fueled by arrogance and incompetence. Leibovitz writes that she doesn't understand why they let her into the White House. Does she really not understand that her work is the seal of approval for power and charisma? Dick and George wanted to be pictured like Keith and Mick.

But although we surely didn't need another collection, I'm still glad we have this rather inelegant one. Her stories are charming, and the brand still works even with these small reproductions. Of all the powerful, glamorous folks who populate her pages, though, the one who stands out most for me is Marilyn, the photographer's mother. The image of the older Ms. Leibovitz steals the show, as did the pictures of her in "A Photographer's Life." There is an honesty and openness about Marilyn that keeps you looking, and, unlike the scores of celebrity shots, one thinks there is more here than meets the eye. She comments: "My mother is looking at me as if the camera were not there." Why does she sound surprised? Lucky for us the camera was there, and we see a rare example in the book of someone looking out at the world not to receive its adoring gaze, but to try to see the person standing in front of her.

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