November 3, 2007
Annie Leibovitz had little to fear when younger sister Barbara
pointed the documentary-maker's lens.
IT IS A FACT UNDISPUTED that Annie Leibovitz, the celebrity
photographer so successful she became a celebrity in her own right,
has been blessed with an unusually close family.
This status was in part imposed on the six Leibovitz siblings by
their career air force father, who moved between military bases
around the US every few years and the Philippines during the Vietnam War.
The constant travelling taught the young Anna-Lou, as her family
still call her, to frame the world through the windows of the family
station wagon, a sister conjectures in the documentary Annie
Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens.
It engendered the spark of creativity into the young girl that would
eventually lead to her appointment as the court photographer of the
Hollywood glitterati, celebrities across the fields of politics,
business, fashion and the arts, and that curious breed of people
simply famous for being famous.
Nor would a piquant imagination have hurt the construction of her
other-worldly yet hyper-real fantasias. Witness Keira Knightley
dressed as The Wizard of Oz's Dorothy, flying through the air in the
muscular arms of a monkey-man. Donald Trump and his pregnant wife
Melania, she clad in a gold bikini posing on the steps of their
private jet; he all sober businessman in a limousine on the tarmac.
Whoopi Goldberg grinning maniacally in a bath of milk.
Leibovitz doesn't do ugly. Her portraits play up to the subjects'
ego, placing them in sometimes curious but always powerful positions.
They obfuscate with all the mania of a celebrity magazine while
paying lip-service to the "real person".
The film's lone voice of dissent to Leibovitz's brilliance, critic
Vicki Goldberg, says: "People do talk about these as being story
portraits. It's a story that's one sentence long. I do think of them
mostly as one-liners."
It's up to Hillary Clinton, however, to unwittingly provide the line
of the film with the observation: "She has become a major chronicler
of our country what we care about, what we are thinking about."
And perhaps the viewer's reaction to her work will be largely the
result of their take on celebrity culture.
Those who find a troubling emptiness at the heart of Leibovitz's
rampantly beautiful work will find in Life Through a Lens a similar
glossy surface with questionable foundations; a failure to reveal the
subject, despite the documentary maker being her youngest sister,
Or, perhaps, because of. The course of our interview and its
aftermath reveals Barbara to be the self-appointed gatekeeper of her
sister, guarding her story like a car yard rottweiler.
It starts out innocently enough, the basic tenets of the story
unspooling like the rags-to-riches archetype. Leibovitz's early break
with counter-culture magazine Rolling Stone. Going on the road with
the Rolling Stones for their 1975 tour, during which she became
increasingly reliant on cocaine ("I did everything you're supposed to
do when you go on tour with the Rolling Stones. Imagine everything
you can possibly do and I did it.") Rehab.
Shooting the seminal photograph of John Lennon naked, curled
foetus-like around a clothed Yoko Ono ("The Pieta of our times," says
Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner) just hours before his murder in
1980. A move to Vanity Fair, where her imagination was given a boost
via a supportive editor in Tina Brown and an unlimited budget. A
longstanding relationship with feminist writer Susan Sontag, which
ended with Sontag's death in 2004.
Her talent as a photographer stems partly from the ability, remarked
upon by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, among others, to disappear.
Maybe it's this talent for unobtrusiveness that makes her a not
entirely satisfactory subject for a documentary.
Despite being before the camera rather than behind it, Leibovitz in
Life Through a Lens keeps disappearing behind the glossy cavalcade of
marching bands, circus performers and water nymphs she marshals as
framing devices for her celebrities.
The documentary, made for US channel PBS' American Masterpiece
series, luxuriates in voluptuous shoots for George Clooney amid a
bevy of bikini-clad women for Vanity Fair, and Kirsten Dunst in
period costume on the set of Marie Antoinette for Vogue.
A 58-year-old with sensible shoes and unkempt hair couldn't compete
if, indeed, she wanted to.
But there are also moments of real emotion, such as when Leibovitz
breaks down looking at deathbed photographs of Sontag. The trouble
with Barbara brews when she is asked if there is a reason the PBS
publicity materials refer to Sontag as Leibovitz's "friend" when it
is a matter of public record that they were partners for 15 years.
The New York Times' failure in Sontag's obituary to mention her
relationship with Leibovitz was remarked on elsewhere as being part
of a culture of whitewashing lesbianism.
But this coyness, it transpires later, is not so surprising. The
couple generally referred to their relationship as a "friendship",
despite Leibovitz describing it in several interviews as "a love
story" and telling the San Francisco Chronicle: "Call us 'lovers'. I
like 'lovers'. You know, 'lovers' sounds romantic. I mean, I want to
be perfectly clear. I love Susan." And Barbara is initially unfazed:
"Annie's not hiding anything. I think Annie's been very open about
it. It's out there."
But then comes the rethink, and with it an email, via a publicist,
complaining about my "inappropriate" questioning. Barbara takes a
similar line to questions about Leibovitz's three children, the
undeniably cute poppets Sarah, 6, and twins Samuelle and Susan, 2.
The only explanation for their existence comes via the line that
Leibovitz found herself at age 50 remembering she'd forgotten to have children.
In a question later labelled by Barbara as tabloid, I ask if
Leibovitz had fertility treatment, or did she adopt or use a surrogate?
"(She did) I think what any single mum would do when they want to
have kids," Barbara says. "They do whatever they can. I don't think I
should go into it."
Very well then. It transpires, via Google, that Sarah was carried by
Leibovitz when she was 51 (she photographed herself naked and
gloriously pregnant for Vanity Fair, images reprinted for her 2006
exhibition and book A Photographer's Life: 1990-2005). The twins were
the product of a surrogate.
And those pesky questions keep popping up.
Another sister, Susan Leibovitz Steinman, comments in the film that
being immersed in a world of celebrities has changed her sister.
Barbara, again more PR agent than documentary maker, comments, "We're
more your average Joe, she's really surrounded by a whole other world
of people … I still think she is the same core person I have known my
Perhaps this need for answers is another sad byproduct of the nature
of celebrity culture that demands the closure of troublesome gaps in
a private narrative. But is it really so unreasonable when a film is
touted as a rare exposure of its subject's personal and artistic life?
There is no benefit to delicate circumspection from a biographer,
especially when the subject is publicity friendly enough to have been
immortalised in wax by Madame Tussaud's, on television by The
Simpsons and in film by Almost Famous.
The truth, like many of Leibovitz's photographs, is out there and
freely available to anyone who cares to find it. But Life Through a
Lens presents only brief snatches of it amid the beautiful artifice
of a celebrity-filled life.
Life Through a Lens (18+) screens at ACMI from Thursday until
Saturday at 7pm and Sunday at 5.30pm; www.acmi.net.au