ANNIE LEIBOVITZ FEATURE
Beatrice Colin hails the work of one of the most imaginative and instinctive photographers of our times.
nnie Leibovitz: serious artist or overpaid celebrity photographer‘.’ Talented portraitist or commercial ego-masseur? Now almost more famous and often wealthier than the subjects she is assigned to snap. who
cares? For Leibovitz has changed the face of contemporary Hollywood glamour photography while creating a huge audience for stylised voyeurism.
A contemporary icon-maker. her portraits immortalise the subject with witty. wild or Using theatrical
surreal conceptual frames. settings as elaborately staged and expensive
as any film set. her images are one-shot movies filled with mischief and the unexpected; Sting stands nude. caked in earth and looking smug in a desert.
Christo is wrapped up in sheets like one of his art-works and Michael Jackson is mesmerised by his own reflection. in a series of works which act like paint- stripper to conventional publicity shots. According to Tom Wolfe. Leibovitz has. ‘a personality like a weather front’. and like an indulged director what she wants she gets. no matter how expensive or impossible it seems to acquire. Using anything from cranes and elephants. to mud or milk. a Leibovit/ shot is painstakingly set up by a team of assistants and often takes whole days to shoot. She regards her sitters not as celebrities but as collaborators in creating fictitious images for mass consumption which. when used on the front cover of Time or Vanitv Fair. sell an awful lot of magazines. Leibovitz is one of the most famous and successful professionals in a long line of celebrity photographers. Ever since Hollywood launched the star as seducer-of—the- imagination in the 20s. the public‘s appetite for the glamorous publicity still has been insatiable. A constant
leihovitz has often created pictures which have become more famous than the as subjects themselves.
stream of new faces with new identities has led to a rapidly changing style of press shot.
Edward Steichen and George Hurrell captured the polished poses and pouts of Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo in the 30s. They created celluloid facades which distanced the star from the public and added to their general allure. Invented personas were projected with perfect images and the film stars were regarded as almost immortal.
In the latter half of the century. photographers such as David Bailey. Helmut Newton and Irving Penn all took stylish but accessible celebrity portraits and added to the mystery and cultivated image of the famous person. But over the last 30 years. the public have wanted to know more about their idols. Hello magazine and Through the Kev/tole-typc television programmes have launched the celebrity zoo. showing the stars
in their natural habitats. Leibovitz‘s work
has evolved from and acknowledges this. In the 70s. she used stark black and white film and a i'erité-style to catch the mood of the tacky glamour of the back stage. Now the more recent colour images appeal to the public who still want to be in on the act but be mesmerised by
glamour. These celebrity portraits
don‘t offer an in-depth examination of the psyche of the star but stylise their public persona into larger than life images.
Indeed. the portraits work on two levels; they acknowledge that the viewer realises that the whole set up is a sham and the star is in fact a surface to be projected upon. Also. as most stars will only pose for magazines if they are promised the cover. the images have to leap
from the ncwsagent‘s shelf with instantly recognisable faces in
unexpected situations. Leibovitz has often created pictures which have become more famous than the subjects themselves. Keith Haring is fixed in the mind of many. not the artist. but as a bespectacled nude. painted chameleon-like. to merge into his own piece. Occasionally Leibovitz seems to try too hard
The portraits don’t offer an in-depth examination of the psyche of the star but stylise their public persona into larger than life images.
and a few of her images. like the blue-faced Blues Brothers feel contrived or corny.
But although her photographs are taken for purely commercial purposes. Leibovitz is one of the most imaginative and instinctive photographers of our times. Her subjects seem completely pliable in front of her lens and agree to pose nude. in costume and even to hang upside down from trees. Each subject stars in Leibovitz’s tableaux and although they may. as in Joan and Jackie’s portrait in the back ofa limo or lvana and Donald Trump in Trump Tower, be mocked. with Leibovitz‘s name on the credits. their celebrity status is endorsed.
With a huge body of work which has become part of the fabric of popular culture. in every city her show has opened thousands have flocked to see Leibovitz‘s two-dimensional legends. But all the gloss may have left her feeling a mite soulless and her most recent work was taken in Sarajevo with close friend Susan Sontag. Without the shine and pith of her publicity stills. they show a different side to her perfectly tuned- in late 20th century perception. L]
Annie Leihovitz.’ Photographs 19704990 is at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, 17 Jane—~31 July.
The List l7—-3() June l994 9