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Images of Annie

The San Diego Museum of Art hosts a revealing exhibition of famed photographer Annie Leibovitz's work, personal as well as professional


HER CAMERA has captured pregnant Demi Moore baring her swollen belly and breasts, and Brad Pitt stretched out on an orange velvet bedspread in Vegas, wearing tight animal-print pants. There’s a shot of President George W. Bush and staff looking stiff and cynical in the Cabinet Room of the White House, and the U.S. Synchronized Swimming Team swirling in an underwater circle.

Photographer Annie Leibovitz is known for taking pictures of performing artists, star athletes and politicians. Her creative use of costumes, dramatic posturing and unusual settings enables her images to tell stories—often tongue-in-cheek—about her subjects.

Designated a Living Legend by the Library of Congress in 2000, Leibovitz was the second photographer to receive a retrospective exhibition at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, and her work has been displayed at numerous galleries worldwide. Her magazine covers for Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and Vogue are an integral part of our culture, as is her imagery for the Milk Board (“Got Milk?”), Gap and American Express advertisements.

Now she’s the subject, and the pictures that share her personal story are part of “Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life, 1990–2005.” The touring exhibition makes its West Coast premiere at the San Diego Museum of Art on February 10. It includes more than 200 images culled from her imposing photography book by the same title.

There are many of the provocative celebrity portraits we have come to expect from Leibovitz. Comedian Chris Rock is dressed as a minstrel in painted-on whiteface. Rubbery actor Jim Carrey looks as if he’s caught in the act of a primal scream. Michael Moore, surrounded by a camera crew at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, stands with the expression of a bulldog. Actress Nicole Kidman poses proudly, swathed in a glittering gown.

But we are also introduced to the unsettling reality of Leibovitz’s life by way of personal family pictures. Taken over a 15-year span are black-and-white images that portray the births of her three daughters (Sarah was conceived by artificial insemination when Leibovitz was 51; a surrogate delivered twins Susan and Samuelle). Then there are the disturbing images that document the deaths of her lover and, six weeks later, her father.

One must remember that Leibovitz is as privileged and famous as many of her subjects—a photo shoot with her is as much a mark of celebrity as a personal driver or an appearance on Letterman. Perhaps that is what led to the assumption, in a New York Times review, that the pictures she shares are “leaking vanity and ambition.” “Surface is Ms. Leibovitz’s strength,” said the critic about the exhibit when it opened at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, “which is why her work is best when she leaves herself out of it.”

If she did leave herself out of it, we would continue to be entertained and amused by the rich and famous. After all, America has an insatiable fascination with celebrity, and exploiting that would be easy enough. But we wouldn’t have the clues that point to the passion that inspires Leibovitz’s work.

In American Masters, a documentary about the photographer that aired on PBS last month, Yoko Ono reflected on the picture Leibovitz took just hours before John Lennon was shot to death. The award-winning Rolling Stone magazine cover, published 1981, showed him naked and curled in a fetal position next to his fully clothed wife.

“She was more concerned with our spirit,” said Ono, “and that came through.”

In the book’s foreword, and in the text that introduces the exhibit, Leibovitz states: “I don’t have two lives. This is one life, and the personal pictures and assignment work are all part of it.”

The largest part of the personal imagery is an unflinching view of Leibovitz’s love affair with Susan Sontag, who, during much of those 15 years, was engaged in a harrowing battle with various forms of cancer. A notable New York intellectual and author, Sontag wasn’t afraid to speak her mind, and she inspired and enraged many before her death in 2004.

Leibovitz and Sontag had a relationship that was intimate and supportive. There are pictures of Sontag in a bathtub, one hand covering the mastectomy scar where a breast was removed. Pictures of Sontag with the plaintive expressive eyes of one who is facing death but still in love with life. Pictures of an incredulous Sontag holding beautiful baby Sarah, just after her birth.

There are also eloquent family shots, ethereal landscapes and images of war, taken in places Sontag and Leibovitz felt passionate about. In Sarajevo, a bicycle on the ground lies next to a black skid mark, made from the blood of the fallen rider who died soon after. The blood of Tutsi schoolchildren is smeared on the yellowed wall of a Rwanda mission school.

A lot of this imagery isn’t pretty or posed, but it serves as a window that allows us to see a daughter, a woman, a lover, mother and advocate. It’s a brave but chaotic mix, collected when Leibovitz was in the throes of mourning. She tells a real-life story far more compelling than her assignment work —one that, like life, doesn’t necessarily make sense. But it demands more of us than the desire to be entertained.

The touring exhibition “Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life, 1990-2005” is at the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park from February 10 to April 22. Information: 619-232-7931.

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