10 October 2006

Annie & Susan - "a love story."

It sems like the photographic "event" this fall is the appearance of Annie Leibovitz's A Photographer’s Life 1990-2005 (Random House) and the exhibition of the same work at the Brooklyn Museum starting later this month. You can find stories in The New York Times and The Guardian [ and Open Democracy].


Leibovitz is a truly talented photographer (I am certain she will be relieved finally to hear my assessment!). The images in this book make that quite clear. One major focus of this work is Leibovitz's personal life and particularly her relationship with Susan Sontag. As Leibovitz recently said in an interview for The Times, “With Susan it was a love story.” The other evening I had the chance to look through the new book and it is clear from the pictures of Sontag that Leibovitz includes that that statement really captures their life together. It is in many ways incredibly touching. Despite the complaints to which the press acconts allude, I admire Leibovitz for publishing the book.

I am surprised to find myself saying that because, despite her many intellectual and political virtues, more often than not I found Sontag's views on photograpahy maddeningly wrongheaded. I have said as much in a previous post and at much greater length in one of the papers I've posted in the sidebar here. Moreover, I don't much like many of Leibovitz's photographic preoccupations. For instance, as The Guardian correspondent says in setting up her story: "She [Leibovitz] is not long returned from her most recent, hugely publicised shoot of Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes and their baby at their ranch in Colorado." To say that I could not care less would be charitable.

So here is where things get a bit dicey. My qualms begin with Sontag's essay "A Photograph is Not an Opinion, Or Is It?," originally written as a sort of introduction for Leibovitz's Women (Random House), which I first read in Sontag's collection of essays Where the Stress Falls (FSG, 2001). At that point I (being a bumpkin from the provinces) didn't know that Sontag and Leibovitz in fact were sharing a life. And I couldn't figure for the life of me why Sontag was so effusive. I plan to go back and re-read the essay and look again at the pictures. Perhaps I can better see the affinities that escaped me last time. I'm not so sure.

Why? In Regarding the Pain of Others Sontag criticizes Sebastiao Salgado's Migrations project for being "complicit, if inadvertantly, in the cult of celebrity that has fueled an insatiable appetite for the opposite sort of photograph," namely one of anonymous suffering. I think this complaint is completely off base, but will not rehearse my reasons here. What I found astonishing when I first read it is that Sontag, herself clearly, if perhaps inadvertantly, a beneficiary of the "cult of celebrity," could level such a charge against others, let alone Salgado. What I find even more astonishing is that she could accuse anyone of complicity in that cult of celebrity while at the same time singing the praises of Leibovitz who has made her career by contributing - not at all "inadvertantly" - to precisely the celebration of celebrity that Sontag apparently found so distasteful. I guess maybe astonishing is not the proper word. This, however, is not the proper place to say what I really think. It might distract from the love story.

[Thanks fo Peter Loewen for prompting me on this post.]
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PS: ADDED 10/11/06. It seems that there is a bit too much preoccupation with just what sort of relationship Sontag & Leibovitz actually had. In The Guardian story we are told: "In public at least, they never referred to themselves as a couple. "Words like 'companion' and 'partner' were not in our vocabulary," Leibovitz says. "We were two people who helped each other through our lives. The closest word is still 'friend'."" The problem is that with celebrity comes the familiar sort of People titillation with such matters. It is the cost of extraordinary privilege I suppose. I think that this is a love story and a touching one. It is a wonderful tale of emotional and intellectual connection. So, while it may seem ironic for me to say this having spent time writing about it, everyone should leave the two women alone.

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2 Comments:

Blogger uberose said...

Hi Jim,
Comment from Sydney Australia, Ros.
I have just started a blog,and now it seems to have become rather political as a friend has asked me to post his comments on Australia so I may have to do another one for my stuff.
I am still learning how to find my way around the site.
Anyway,I enjoyed looking through your comments and have saved you in my favorites for future reference.
Found you Annie & Susan story very interesting,have been a long time fan of Annie and her photographs,I have gathered she has a very strong character, but this puts a different light on her again.
Will read the Rothko post when possible.
I work 9 to 5 as a receptionist in Real Estate in Sydney and get a chance to use the internet when I have spare time.

Thanks uberose

11 October, 2006 20:06  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Hey! Thanks for the long distance comments. Hope all is well down there.

13 October, 2006 11:12  

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