by Annie Leibovitz and Susan Sontag
Published by Random House
245 pages, 1999
Buy it online
Through Annie’s Lens
Reviewed by Linda L. Richards
She is one of the most celebrated photographers of her generation. Her photos for Rolling Stone in the 1960s redefined what celebrity photography would look like. In many ways, she created a genre within the photographic field, establishing a look that has often been copied but never quite duplicated.
She is also one of the most vilified of modern photographers. At least among the photographic set. No photographer seems to get heaped with as much abuse as Annie Leibovitz among the lesser known of her peers. This has always been unfathomable to me. How can she be so highly regarded and so uniformly trashed? How can she be at once envied and practically deified? Mamiya gives her cameras which she doesn't actually need, since Vanity Fair regularly gives her covers. And those covers seem to glow with the surety of her vision. I always know when the cover has been shot by Leibovitz. It's not that there is a sameness in her work: there isn't. There is just a certain clarity to an image created by her hand.
It's not the work that invites such criticism. So what can it be? Though I'm not one to cry, "gender foul," over the years of listening to photographers -- not great ones, but good ones -- talk about Leibovitz in really scathing tones, I've come to the conclusion that it can only because she's a woman. Despite the fact that there are no physical limitations that prohibit women from being really successful in the field, the number of women pros remains strikingly low. And, of the many women that do make their living with their cameras, only a handful have ever reached the top of the profession.
And then there's Leibovitz. It has always seemed to me that she did not scale the heights so much as establish new ones. In many ways, she has established the benchmark for others to follow and it saddens me to think that maybe her gender is the reason that so few of her peers feel that they can look up to her.
Despite any of this, Leibovitz' work is not gender-driven. Her photos are great in any company. So it seemed ironic to me that, for her most recent book, she has chosen Women as not only her subject, but her title as well.
It's no surprise that the photos are -- quite simply -- wonderful. The first image in the book is of the photographer's own mother, Marilyn Leibovitz, and the image is typical of the younger Leibovitz' work. Perfect in unforgiving black and white, the light on the subject's face is sharp and diffused at once, while her hair is illuminated by a halo of light. Marilyn is meeting the camera full on and it is impossible not to see the strength in this woman's face. A lifetime of love and hard work fairly emanate from her. It's a beautiful portrait and it sets the tone for the balance of the work collected here.
The women in Women are not categorizable by anything beyond gender. They are mothers and astronauts; Las Vegas showgirls (with and without stage regalia: actually pretty interesting all by themselves), soldiers and rap artists; socialites and coal miners; debutantes and research scientists.
From a purely technical standpoint, the work is faultless. Leibovitz doesn't need a book to prove her virtuosity. If she did, Women would do it. The varying nature of her work is apparent throughout the book. Leibovitz' at times almost-photojournalistic black and white. Color portraits lit as though for fashion shoots. Others that look suitable only for gallery walls. Still more that defy categorization: subjects so beautifully framed and lit, you almost expect to see them breathe.
Interestingly, however, while the end flaps of Women tell us that the photographs were "taken especially for the book," I know I've seen a portion of these images in other places, notably the pages of Vanity Fair . And, if not the very same images, certainly some from the same shoots. A black and white photo of actress Sigourney Weaver, for example, in a fishnet full body leotard and posed in a chair with her head thrown back is by now a well-known image. Another of Jerry Hall nursing Gabriel Jagger looking spectacular and maternal. A moody one of Natalie Portman taken in Montgomery, Alabama that reminds one of a hand tint.
The fact that the images have been used elsewhere doesn't in any way detract from the book. It just can't help but make you wonder why the publishers would bother to claim otherwise.
Another quibble that did greatly affect my enjoyment of the work was the lack of dates in relation to when each photo was taken. Not including the year that the image was captured takes away some of the relevance for me.
Susan Sontag has been given equal billing on the cover, something I find unfathomable on a book that is so clearly one of Leibovitz' work. The essay that Sontag has contributed amounts to a foreword and -- by my judgment -- a boring one at that. William Wegman seems to feel no need to justify his actions when he produces yet another book that consists of photos of his beloved Weimaraners. Why should Leibovitz require justification for producing a book of photos of women? And Sontag's essay -- no matter how eloquent -- does seem to amount to little more than justification.
Imagine a book of pictures of women in which none of the women could be identified as beautiful. Wouldn't we feel that the photographer had made some kind of mistake? Was being mean-spirited? Misogynistic? Was depriving us of something that we had a right to see? No one would say the same thing of a book of portraits of men.
This sentiment, and others like it, sounds tired to me. Haven't we grown far beyond this type of thinking here at the dawn of the new millennium? Will there actually be anyone who challenges Leibovitz' choice of subject matter? This particular photographer could choose to produce a collection of telephone operators or medical interns and the world would pay attention: such is the power that we know Annie Leibovitz brings to her work. The photographs Leibovitz makes epitomize the very best of her artform. Anything done to those photos -- beyond the inclusion of dates -- does nothing to enhance the experience.
The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. is exhibiting a selection of photographs from Women in conjunction with the book's publication. | November 1999
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.