Monday, 24 November 2008

Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer's Life, 1990-2005 at The National Portrait Gallery

Before you enter Annie Leibovitz's new show it is possible for everyone to see four images from her now infamous shoot with the Queen. As we stood there looking at them my wife overheard someone saying 'She looks so regal, I mean that is royalty'. They are indeed rather austere and there is a very strange quality to them; they don't look real. The Queen looks more like a waxwork placed in a dramatic setting and the lighting looks forced making the pictures look more like paintings than photographs, which may indeed be the point, but actually sucks the life out of them as portraits. Once you actually get inside the retrospective is a combination of her celebrity portraits, personal photos of family and friends (including many of her partner Susan Sontag), reportage from Sarajevo and even her first work in landscape. It is a curious mixture, and it really is mixed up. The portrait of a pregnant Demi Moore is surrounded by her reportage from Sarajevo, one of which, a striking image of an abandoned bicycle and a vicious swipe of blood, the remnants of a mortar falling, shows all too clearly this juxtaposition of life and death.

Death is obviously something which haunts this exhibition. The photographs documenting the illness and death of Susan Sontag are bound to divide people. I personally found the later ones a little ghoulish and uncomfortable, finding far more in the more relaxed pictures she had taken of them both on their travels together or simply lounging around at home or in hotels. It was Sontag who had encouraged Leibovitz to take more personal photos and it these for me which are the most interesting to look at. There isn't much to be gained from seeing the familiar pictures of celebrities from magazines blown up, although her portraits of politicians I found slightly more interesting mainly due to the benefit of hindsight. Given what we know now it's difficult not to snigger at her picture of Bill Clinton in the Oval Office perched confidently on the desk with one hand lying in his lap. The group picture of Bush's White House team (looking much younger) shows the traits they went on to exhibit during both of his terms: the reptilian smirk of Dick Cheney, the demonstrative seriousness of Condoleezza Rice and the arrogant raised eyebrow of Donald Rumsfeld, all in the one picture.

But with her pictures of friends and family there is real life and love. They are the kind of candid photos we all take but whether it's family gatherings or the informal shots of her parents on the beach or getting out of bed they show her skills at composition transferred to a more immediate form than the studio photography which dominates the rest of the show. It is a shame that for the most part these images are so small, I couldn't help but think that they would have benefited from enlarging in a way the editorial images didn't. One picture which she has taken of her mother tells a great story. Her mother was afraid of looking old whilst Leibovitz of course was unafraid of showing her exactly as she was, keen in fact to get away from the family tradition of always smiling in photos. She found herself weeping behind the camera as she shot. Her parents disliked the picture when they saw it, but I think it has the kind of honesty and affection which can make a much more compelling portrait. Just imagine if she'd been given the opportunity to take a similar photograph of The Queen.


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