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Television Review

Art, celebrity meet in 'Leibovitz'

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / January 3, 2007

If Annie Leibovitz were any hotter these days, Vanity Fair would have to assign her to take a self-portrait.

Leibovitz, 57, has long been our most celebrated celebrity photographer. Her best-known pictures -- a naked John Lennon curled up, fetuslike, against a clothed Yoko Ono ; a naked, and very pregnant, Demi Moore -- are among the best-known of the past 40 years (which is roughly how long she's been photographing).

Leibovitz has lately reached a new level of public recognition. She was on the cover of Newsweek in October. A retrospective of the last 15 years of her work is currently at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, kicking off a multiyear tour that ends at London's National Portrait Gallery . The accompanying book, "A Photographer's Life," is a bestseller -- at $75, no less.

Now another medium is paying Leibovitz homage. Tonight PBS' "American Masters" airs "Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens." It is, in effect, an infomercial. To be sure, it's an infomercial for a quality product, but it's still an infomercial -- for a family firm, as it were. The documentary was written, photographed, and directed by Barbara Leibovitz , Annie's sister.

A rangy, restless woman, Leibovitz is highly engaging. She combines an intimidating physical presence with a wholly unintimidating personality. As Gloria Steinem nicely puts it in the documentary, "She is the tallest and the most authoritative uncertain person I've ever seen." It's a striking contrast with Leibovitz's longtime companion, the late writer Susan Sontag , who looms through much of the documentary like a ghostly superego.

The daughter of a career Air Force officer, Leibovitz went to the San Francisco Art Institute to study painting. She took a photography workshop there, bringing some of her pictures to a new magazine called Rolling Stone. Thus did rock 'n' roll find its unofficial court photographer. As Leibovitz says tonight, "Imagine everything you can possibly do on tour with the Rolling Stones, and I did it." In 1983, she went to work for Vanity Fair. Neither she, nor celebrity, has been quite the same since.

The documentary makes no real effort to separate Leibovitz's artistry (which is large) from her celebrity (which is vast). The closest thing to serious commentary comes when photography critic Vicki Goldberg remarks, "People do talk about . . . [Leibovitz's] story portraits. It's a story that's one sentence long. I really do think of them mostly as one-liners."

More representative is Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner's describing the Lennon portrait as "an overwhelming artifact, the Pieta of our times." Or there's Hillary Rodham Clinton saying Leibovitz "has been a major chronicler of our country, what we care about, what we think about."

Presumably, Clinton was interviewed because Leibovitz has photographed her, though Clinton has nothing insightful to say about the experience (unlike Keith Richards and Arnold Schwarzenegger , who are among the many celebrities who sing Leibovitz's praises tonight).

The real reason Clinton is included is because she's famous and important. The assumption is that her fame and importance rub off on Leibovitz. Clinton, in turn, presumably found time in her schedule to talk about something she knows nothing about on the assumption Leibovitz's fame and importance will rub off on her. Circularity is the first principle of celebrity: I'll scratch your back if you'll photograph mine.

Anna Wintour , the editor of Vogue, explains it to us this way. "In today's world, which is so celebrity driven, being able to use Annie as one of our star photographers is a huge, huge plus for us. If you ring up Nicole Kidman and say 'Joe Smith is going to photograph you next month,' a big yawn. If you ring up and say Annie Leibovitz wants to photograph you, she'll be there that night, with bells on."

Leibovitz's own bells are something to see. We get to observe her shooting Kirsten Dunst in Versailles, George Clooney and Julia Roberts in New York, the Donald Trumps in Palm Beach, and so on. It's all quite glamorous and interesting, if also kind of empty. Minus the A-list names, and reverential tone, you might think you were watching E!

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