A Photographer’s Life, 1990 – 2005

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She is probably the most prominent portrait photographer of our time. Her works are featured in the glossy pages of the biggest magazines on the planet – Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair– and examples of her work are the topic of heated discussions worldwide. One of her most-talked photographs, the portrait of the naked John Lennon kissing Yoko Ono, was taken only a few hours before Lennon’s death. Yet, visitors of her latest photographic exhibition “Annie Leibovitz, A Photographer’s life, 1990 – 2005” at the National Portrait Gallery will get another glimpse of her personality. Next to her colourful, defined and artistically mastered commercial work, there exists a collection of mostly black-and-white, unprocessed and intimate images of her personal life.

“I don’t have two lives,” Leibovitz says. “This is one life, and the personal pictures and the assignment work are all part of it.” The exhibition contains portraits of celebrities, including Brad Pitt, Leonardo diCaprio, Nicole Kidman and the naked, pregnant Demi Moore – the famous cover of Vanity Fair in 1991. It also includes photographic assignments of Leibovitz from the siege of Sarajevo in the early 1990s and the election of Hillary Clinton to the U.S. Senate. It could certainly do without the uninspiring pictures of George Bush and his cabinet, Colin Powell and General Norman Schwarzkopf. Among the celebrity pictures, two of them stand out not for the popularity of the subjects, but for not belonging to the human kind: a picture of R2D2 in a box and a slimline droid model from the film Star Wars™, The Attack of the Clones.

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For the first time, we also see a collection of private moments of the photographer. Moments with her family, the birth of her children and the death of her father. But the most powerful work is a series of photographs of her long-time partner, writer Susan Sontag. The images display Sontag during her battle with cancer, her various treatments, her return to New York after a failed treatment and her eventual death.

At the last room, visitors can look at the creative process of organizing the images for this exhibition. A sample of her images, both of her personal life and professional work, are pinned on big cardboards, mostly in chronological order. This process helped her to decide the images she wanted to and to envisage the entire exhibition. In fact, the initial idea for this exhibition came about searching in her archive to find various pictures of Susan to include in a booklet for her memorial service.

In this exhibition, we do not get just a glimpse of Leibovitz as an established professional but as a human being. It is not the mastery of Leibovitz’s technique that elevates her to an iconic photographer. It is rather the narrative nature of the images, the underlying story that they tell, that makes her photography the work of a genius.

Lambda.

P.S.: The exhibition “Annie Leibovitz, A Photographer’s life, 1990 – 2005” at the National Portrait Gallery in London lasts till February 1st, 2009. The book, Annie Leibovitz, A photographer’s life, 1990 – 2005, containing more than 300 of her images, was published by Random House, Inc.

(photo © Robert Scoble and second image, scanned from the gallery guide © National Portrait Gallery)

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