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Annie Leibovitz – Life Through a Lens

Annie Leibovitz – Life Through a Lens. 2008. USA. DVD (Region 2 PAL). 83 minutes. ICA Films. £19.99

About the reviewer: Melissa Atkinson studied Photography, Film and Art History as an undergraduate and has a MA in Museum Studies. She is an active artist working within the mediums of photography and printmaking. She previously worked at the British Film Institute and the National Portrait Gallery and now is the Visual Resources Development Officer at the Quaker Centre Library in London.

Leibovitz is an influential celebrity portrait photographer creating cultural myths for a hungry advertising society

Annie Leibovitz – Life Through a Lens is a documentary chronicling the life of the American celebrity portrait photographer. It is based around Leibovitz compiling personal snapshots of family and friends including, photojournalism work as well as her more famous cover shots for Vanity Fair and Vogue, for her 500-page book called, A Photographer’s Life 1990–2005. The publication of this monolithic work in 2006 led to an exhibition organised by the Brooklyn Museum which has since toured to the San Diego Museum of Art, the Corcoran Gallery, Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris, and the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Interlaced with a straightforward biography of Leibovitz, from her beginnings to where she is now, are interviews from an impressive array of celebrities and publishers as well as family and friends. In addition, we follow Leibovitz on various photography assignments. We learn how this daughter of a military general from a large family studied in San Francisco, eventually starting her photography career with long-term tenure at Rolling Stone magazine.

Influenced by Bea Feitler, consulting art director for Conde Nast Publications, Leibovitz over time became more serious and focused about her own work – composing more conceptual photographs, combining the person and their art so the portraits became narratives themselves.

In the film the only negative comment about the photographer’s work comes from critic Vicki Goldberg, who considers Leibovitz’s spreads to be ‘one-liners’ rather than picture stories. This statement radiates more truth about the documentary than the artist herself and would have been an interesting topic for debate had it been more fully explored. Instead Leibovitz is presented as a revered god of ultimate strength and talent. One cannot help but think that since Leibovitz has complete control over her photographic empire that in the end she has control over this documentary too. Leibovitz is an influential celebrity portrait photographer creating cultural myths for a hungry advertising society. Does she still enjoy this work? Maybe by creating these outrageous cover shoots she is pushing the boundaries of her superiors, waiting for someone to say ‘no’, but no one has, except perhaps American literary theorist Susan Sontag. She at at least was able to make Leibovitz stop and think about what she was creating, even if only very briefly. Some of the intimate moments within the documentary occur when Leibovitz recalls moments from her relationship with Sontag. These reminisces, and the home movie footage that goes with them, help make the documentary more engaging. It would have been good to see more of these reflections about her own work as well as her family and non-professional life. This has to be rated as something of a missed opportunity for all those, especially students, interested in portraiture, composition and the development of conceptual ideas.

Life Through a Lens was made by Barbara Leibovitz, a television documentary filmmaker and Annie’s younger sister. Having a film made by your sister would, one might have hoped, helped  provide a more personal and emotional portrayal of the celebrity photographer. However, in the end one is left asking more questions – specifically about the subject’s personal life such as where and when did her children come from, how long was her drug problem and how do her ideas manifest themselves?

Sadly the viewer is left with rather a cool portrayal of this imposing talent. Leibovitz states here that the greatest relationship in her life has been with her work. Leibovitz comes across as a perfectionist, one in awe of celebrity who while enjoying creating these cultural myths has, herself, become a celebrity icon that refuses to give much away.

This DVD is recommend for anyone studying photography, media, or art history.

Melissa Atkinson

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