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Photographer Annie Leibovitz's lifework is on the line

If she doesn't come up with millions to pay off a loan soon, she could lose the rights to all her photographs.

September 05, 2009|Paul Lieberman

NEW YORK CITY — reporting from new york city

Annie Leibovitz had two goals for a proposed series of her famous celebrity photographs, enlarged to 5 feet tall, at a price of $25,000 each.

For starters, "She said she would like to make more money," recalled Fifth Avenue gallery owner Edwynn Houk, who devised the plan with her before she took it to an auction house that staged a London exhibition last year with even higher prices for the jumbo photos -- $33,000.

But beyond the bottom line, Leibovitz was intent on solidifying the status of her photos as fine art, Houk said. At those prices, buyers would have to be interested in more than the celebrities: "They were collecting the work of Annie Leibovitz."

That Leibovitz wanted to control how her work is positioned is hardly a surprise. She's the master of the setup shot, the conceptual cover -- meticulously positioning her subjects, whether it's a nude John Lennon wrapped around his wife, Yoko Ono, or Demi Moore, nude and pregnant, Steve Martin as part of a Franz Kline painting, or heads of state such as President Bill Clinton, whom she tried in vain to talk into posing while smoking a cigar in the Oval Office. That's how she's come to define modern celebrity portrait photography during her decades shooting cover photos for Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and Vogue.

But the 59-year-old Leibovitz soon could lose control of her life's work, for the very reason she needed money, and fast.

Leibovitz faces a Tuesday deadline to repay a $24-million loan from a New York art-finance company. Art Capital Group advanced her that sum last year after the photographer, in "dire financial condition," as court papers put it, posted as collateral basically everything she owns -- not only her two homes but "every photographic image ever taken by Ms. Leibovitz," according to the lender.

She isn't the first creative person to mortgage intellectual property. Lennon and fellow Beatle Paul McCartney dealt their song publishing rights and pop star Michael Jackson, who bought them, later used their catalog, and his own hits, to secure more than $200 million in loans. Representatives of singer David Bowie reaped $55 million for him in 1997 by turning the revenue stream from his old songs and recording masters into bonds -- "Bowie Bonds," they're called.

Meanwhile art collectors, galleries and artists themselves have embraced ways short of selling to convert the framed beauty on their walls into liquidity. Artist-director Julian Schnabel used a Picasso he owned for 20 years to secure financing to develop top-of-the-line condos in Greenwich Village.

Even the esteemed Metropolitan Opera in essence hocked the Chagall murals in the lobby at Lincoln Center, using them as collateral for a $35-million loan.

But Leibovitz's deal with Art Capital goes well beyond such arrangements. It could result in the outright sale of her photo copyrights to a party who might decide it's better to market her images in lots of 1,000, or on postcards, not the fine-art limited-edition approach she has embraced.

Art Capital says it secured one more thing for its largesse -- the "irrevocable right" to serve as her exclusive agent through the loan period and two years after, meaning it would negotiate photo shoots she does outside her contracted ones for Vanity Fair and get a cut of her newly created work too.

Leibovitz signed the deal with "sophisticated counsel," the company says in a lawsuit, but which she since has tried to sabotage, notably by entering a separate representation arrangement with the photo agency Getty Images, which was going to pay her $1.1 million for eight assignments. That generated another suit by Art Capital, against Getty.

The litigation has placed a spotlight on the pressures facing the 6-foot-tall photographer, who is juggling multimillion-dollar mortgages on her triple town house-studio in Greenwich Village and her 200-acre Astor Barns country estate up the Hudson River, and more than $2 million in tax liens and unpaid bills.

Leibovitz is not talking, but supporters say she did not realize what she was signing away; like many creative sorts, she is less than focused on pocketbook matters. "Artists like her generally don't do it for the money," said Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter. "If they did they'd be working for AIG . . . "

Those close to Leibovitz say it's not like her to relinquish authority over how the world sees the images she orchestrates, whether Whoopi Goldberg posed in a tub of milk or Chris Rock in whiteface.

"Annie is the most successful artist in the history of photography," Carter said. "That does not happen by accident. And she is nothing if not controlling when it comes to her work."

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