While photographer Annie Leibovitz may
be best known for her assignments for magazines - such as much-talked-about
"Vanity Fair" covers like this year’s first photos
of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes’s daughter, Suri, or the nude
portrait of pregnant actress Demi Moore from 1991 - the new exhibit
at the Brooklyn Museum, "Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s
Life, 1990-2005," is a revealing look at not only the artist
on every celeb’s A-list, but also the people who are most important
to her: family and friends.
By "revealing," we mean that the famed shutterbug doesn’t shy away from turning the camera on herself in this show, which includes a self-portrait of Leibovitz in her birthday suit, pregnant with her first child, at age 52.
"You can feel beautiful when you’re pregnant," the now-57-year-old artist told the crush of paparazzi at the exhibition’s press opening on Oct. 19. "It’s absolutely true."
Leibovitz, whose work with the stars has turned her into a much-lauded celebrity herself, includes a wide range of images of American VIPs in this show. Whether they are actors or generals, her subjects are captured in poses as formal and traditional as paintings of royalty hanging in the Prado or Hermitage museums or as relaxed as a candid snapshot. The ingenuity Leibovitz employs in revealing her subjects is as breathtaking as her range of styles.
Yet this "assignment work" - 15 years’ worth of portraits of presidents, artists and musicians - is interspersed with shots of the photographer’s immediate and extended family as well as of her longtime companion, author Susan Sontag, and her battles with cancer.
Literally capturing the human experience, from the delivery room to the funeral home, the show can only be the work of one thoughtful, down-to-earth lenswoman.
Despite the deaths of Sontag and her father, which took place during the years featured in the exhibition, Leibovitz’s life appears to be an enviable one. She shares her snapshots of travels in Egypt, Jordan, France and Italy as well as her beaming family members reunited for the holidays or her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. Candids of friends are snapped inside sunshine-filled rooms with book-lined walls where it seems certain that the literati congregate and trade bon mots over the right wine.
There are photos that reveal the writer’s life, too. In 1990 Berlin, Leibovitz shot a still life of scraps of paper scrawled with notes for Sontag’s novel, "The Volcano Lover," and another still-life of notes, two years later, on a computer screen in Manhattan. Although the exhibition notes don’t define the relationship between the two women, it’s clear that theirs was a love story.
Surprisingly, there’s no shortage of artists familiar to and beloved by Brooklynites in this exhibition. A 1998 black-and-white portrait of Mark Morris shows the enigmatic choreographer-dancer with a cigarette clamped between his lips. His hair is a wild mane of dark curls, and his T-shirt is frayed and torn. It’s a portrait of the youthful artist - years before he opened the Mark Morris Dance Center in Fort Greene - that is both defiant and wary of the camera.
There are also color, tight shots of the body parts of Mark Morris Dance Group’s June Omura, taken in 1999. Those legs that appear to be flawless, muscled perfection on the stages of the Brooklyn Academy of Music Opera House or the band shell in Prospect Park, are revealed by Leibovitz’s lens to be quite vulnerable: scratched and bruised and run through with blue veins.
During the press conference, Leibovitz betrayed an affinity for comedians whom she likened to mad geniuses, so perhaps it’s not surprising that her 1998 portrait of Chris Rock, a Bedford-Stuyvesant native, would stop a gallery visitor in their tracks. Rock is photographed in a ringmaster’s ensemble - in white face - against a circus tent at Floyd Bennett Field. It’s provocative and uncomfortably comic at once.
In a stunning display of trust - or chutzpah - frequent BAM performer and avant-garde artist Laurie Anderson is photographed hanging by her ankles - without a net - over the Coney Island boardwalk filled with smiling onlookers in 1995.
"Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life, 1990-2005" was born from the book of the same name (Random House, $75), and they are interesting companion pieces. Yet fans should seek out the exhibition before it closes in January, because it infuses the book’s images with life. While the 1992 portrait of actor Daniel Day-Lewis is mildly arresting on the page, the large print at the museum brings every detail into focus and gives the thespian a decidedly more regal air.
In her introduction to the book, Leibovitz writes that this project is "the closest thing to who I am that I’ve ever done" and the inclusion of her intimate photographs is a courageous decision.
Also, Leibovitz chose to blow-up the photos of her assignment work for the exhibition and kept her personal work snapshot size, to draw the viewer closer, as if they were indeed looking at her family album.
At the press conference, Leibovitz said that if she was pressed to pick a favorite image, it would be the black-and-white portrait of her mother, taken in 1997, which betrays every crease and wrinkle in her face. It’s like a map documenting a lifetime of accumulated wisdom, compassion and lines etched by smiles and laughter.
The show closes with a room full of enormous blow-ups of Leibovitz’s muddy, grainy, black-and-white landscapes which can’t help but seem less than all of the searing, joyful or poignant portraits that have come before. But this gallery does have a contemplative quality that quiets the mind before entering the reading room, the final space that houses Leibovitz’s 2001 portrait of one of her heroes, photographer Richard Avedon, and another of his camera.
It seems fitting that Leibovitz pay tribute to one of the artist’s who inspired her at the end of an exhibition that is certain to inspire so many of her own fans.
"Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s
Life, 1990-2005" remains on view at the Brooklyn Museum
(200 Eastern Parkway at Washington Avenue in Prospect Heights)
through Jan. 21, 2007. Admission is $8, $4 for students with
valid ID and seniors, and free for children younger than 12.
For more information, visit the Web site www.brookl
Leibovitz will be honored by the museum’s "Women in Arts" program on Nov. 8 at 11 am, which is a fundraiser for the Brooklyn Museum. Tickets to this event, which include admission and parking, are $125-$1,500. For information, call the Community Committee at (718) 789-2493.