by Molly Nance
- USA -
I'm not usually one to arrive to a press event 30 minutes early, but recently I woke up in time to drive two hours north from Monterey to San Francisco, to arrive promptly at the Legion of Honor, for the first time. The view from this hilltop setting - a bright blue San Francisco Bay framed by the Golden Gate Bridge - took my breath away at that early morning hour.
And what a life she has lived! Leibovitz, 59, born in Connecticut to a father in the Air Force and a mother who taught dance, almost since starting her career in her early twenties she has held a notable and prestigious position as one of the world's most celebrated photographers. Leibovitz is the recipient of many honors, including the rank of Commandeur in the French government's Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and the Barnard College Medal of Distinction. In 2000, she was named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress, and Smithsonian magazine ranked her as one of the thirty-five Innovators of Our Time.After graduating from the San Francisco Art Institute, Leibovitz started working for Rolling Stone magazine in 1970, creating now famous images. One of the most notable is the photograph of a nude John Lennon curling up to his fully clothed wife, Yoko Ono. Leibovitz clearly captured Lennon’s vulnerability, in both his relationship with Ono, and his mortality, as she snapped this image on what turned out to be the last day of his life. One month later in January 1981, the photo graced the cover of Rolling Stone, catapulting Leibovitz to the higher realm of “celebrity photographer.” In 1983, Vanity Fair magazine granted her the title of Chief Photographer, and as the years went on, she received assignments from Vogue magazine, and many national advertisers including the Gap, American Express, and the “Got Milk?” campaigns.
Everyone who is anyone has been photographed by Annie Leibovitz. From former South African president Nelson Mandela, to United States General Norman Schwarzkopf, to the Bush Administration, to American country singer Willie Nelson, to the United Kingdom's Queen Elizabeth - Leibovitz has captured and is still capturing the world's leading politicians and celebrities.
But the time had come for Leibovitz to reflect back on her life, especially the years from 1990 to 2005, and to share her most treasured images with the world. The exhibit projects proud moments of her career as well as events in her personal life both happy and painful, something she now says she will never do again.
"I really opened myself up. This is the first and last time I'll do this," Leibovitz said to a room full of reporters and photographers, before conducting a tour of her exhibit at the Legion of Honor. "I had misgivings of what I've done...but [that’s] not to say that I'm not proud."Before Leibovtiz addressed the crowd, as expected, she was greeted generously with the flickering of flashbulbs from all the photographers who were clearly inspired by her achievements. I, like many people there, was excited to literally be in the same room as her, let alone be at a distance comfortable enough to make eye contact and within earshot, too.
Situated in the third row, I discovered that Leibovitz is extremely tall and a bit awkward, her long limbs shrouded in a black top, black pants and sneakers. From head to toe, she was anything but pretentious.
As the photographers quietly and respectfully clicked away, I had the audacity to ask her, "So, how does it feel to have your picture taken?"
I was caught off guard when she turned directly to me, her eyes peeking through her black-rimmed glasses. As streaks of blond-grayish hair draped her stern, yet soft face, she replied simply, "It feels like you are falling down a black hole. It's like, 'Oh no, what do I do?'"
Her light-hearted and frank response was refreshing to me, and is why her exhibit is so intriguing. In this show, Leibovitz bares all, as do some of her subjects. The celebrity photos on display include the A-list Hollywood actress Demi Moore, posing naked seven months pregnant for the cover of Vanity Fair in 1991. (I personally think that every woman, belly full with new life should follow this ritual, as this image is absolutely gorgeous.) Another image that I gravitated towards is of American actor Johnny Depp, and his then girlfriend, British model Kate Moss - an image that reflects Depp's devotion to the love of his life (at that moment) at New York City’s Royalton Hotel in 1994. Although Depp is fully clothed pressed against a nude Moss (who stares almost sheepishly into the camera lens), it is Depp who looks the most vulnerable, and at the same time, the most at peace. This image is yet another beautiful rendition of Leibovitz's capacity to connect with her subjects.But Leibovitz also bares a lot of herself in her personal photographs. They show her loving relationship with her siblings, children, parents, and also chronicles the death of beloved friend, Susan Sontag, who died from cancer in 2004. Sontag, an American author, journalist, and filmmaker, won many honors in her lifetime including the 2003 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, the 2001 Jerusalem Prize, the National Book Award for In America (2000), and the National Book Critics Circle Award for On Photography (1978). She also held the same honor as Leibovitz, as a Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres granted her by the French government in 1999.
In the preface to her book, Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer's Life, 1990-2005, Leibovitz writes, "I forced myself to take pictures of Susan's last days. Perhaps the pictures completed the work she and I had begun together when she was sick in 1998. I didn't analyze it then. I just knew I had to do it."
Knowing little of Leibovitz’s relationship with Sontag, except that these two public figures were companions to each other for almost two decades, the pictures speak of a deep friendship. Weeks before entering the halls of the Legion of Honor, I went to the library to flip through Leibovitz's book and was introduced to the images of Sontag's decline (from 1998 to 2004). The pictures in the book do not compare to seeing the pain in Leibovitz's eyes as she led the tour, speaking of their final years together.Leibovitz and Sontag traveled all over the world together: to Mexico, Jordan, Germany, Japan, France, and Monument Valley in Arizona, where Leibovitz first took a stab at landscape photography. ("I'm not a landscape photographer," she wholeheartedly admitted during the tour.) Images from these travels depict Sontag wrapped in a robe while sitting at breakfast in Venice, or laying on a hotel bed in Milan. But even more personal and poignant are the photographs Leibovitz took of Sontag in a bathtub in her New York apartment. Sontag's body is submerged in water, her left arm over her stomach and her right arm covering both her heart and chest after her mastectomy. The picture, taken in 1992, clearly shows the struggle and realness of Sontag's illness, well before she started getting sick in 1998.
During the tour, Leibovitz reiterated what she wrote in the preface of her book - that editing her images in preparation for her book and exhibit helped her break through the haunting experience of love lost.
"I cried for a month. I didn't realize until later how far the work on the book had taken me through the grieving process. It's the closest thing to who I am [that] I've ever done," she writes.
Having been in the same room as Leibovitz and having seen her as a real person was not only a joy and honor for me, but for every other person on the tour. Mona T. Brooks, a San Francisco based photojournalist who recently covered Barack Obama’s presidential primary campaign, was ecstatic to be able to photograph Leibovitz. She said she felt a "connection" with her because of their common source of inspiration. Brooks explained that when she took a photo history class five years ago, she was apprehensive about the course objectives.
"I thought, 'This is boring, I don't want to learn about history. I want to shoot.' And the only person that I knew was a famous photographer was Annie Leibovitz, and my teachers encouraged me to find who else inspired me. I looked around and thought - Diana Horrowitz. And it's funny because that is who inspired Annie Leibovitz," Brooks said.For me, the images that made an imprint on my mind - like Ruth Orkin's "American Girl in Italy" and Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother" - will always remain with me. I was first introduced to these photographers, as well as to Annie Leibovitz, by my photojournalism teacher, Ken Kobré from San Francisco State University. It was in 1998 that I first became "aware" of photojournalism, and then at this press preview was reunited with him, after an entire decade had passed!
It was interesting for me to see that Ken, an established photojournalist and author of Photojournalism, Fifth Edition: A Professional Approach, was just as excited as I was to be on this tour.
"I've been teaching and using her photographs in my class for years. I think she is the photographer of our time, and I think her photographs have become iconic for our day," Ken said. Describing her signature assignment work for Vogue and Vanity Fair magazines, he thinks she has done "a fantastic job [of] creating a new style of photography, which is a style that combines a portrait with a photo illustration. They are pictures of real people, but they come out of her imagination."
While back in 1998 Ken believed I had enough talent to pursue photojournalism, I find that writing about people and sharing their stories in words paints just as pretty a picture. But seeing Leibovitz in the flesh, and viewing her years of hard work as shown through her photographs, has certainly inspired me to dust off my Canon Rebel EOS, load it with film, and get to work.
About the Author
Molly Nance is a freelance writer and journalist, based in California's Central Coast. After obtaining her bachelor's degree in TV and Radio Broadcasting from San Francisco State University, Molly honed her skills in video production and on-camera reporting. In the last several years, she has covered a range of topics including education, philanthropy, social justice, art, and business matters. Formerly a resident of San Diego for almost three years, she continues to write for San Diego Business Journal, San Diego Daily Transcript, Rancho Santa Fe Review, and SPACE Magazine. Having a great interest in education, Molly contributes to Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, a bi-monthly national magazine and writes for CSU San Marcos' on-campus publications. Visit www.mollynance.com to view more of her work.