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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Annie Leibovitz

Beckhan: Got Milk?, 2006,
Annie Leibovitz
She may not be the most well-known photographer working in America today, but I dare say very few Americans have not seen her work. It's hard to pick up a magazine without finding somewhere between the covers, and maybe even on the back cover itself, one of her photos. She's paid very well for it too, by the American Dairy Council. The fact is, few other photographers could get so many famous people to look so silly in their "milk mustaches" as Annie Leibovitz. But then, famous people, the beautiful people, celebrities, are her stock in trade. No other artist of either sex working today has ever shot so many of them and in doing so, captured their personal essence so well. From the time she went to work for Rolling Stone while still a student at San Francisco Art Institute in 1970, to the present day, her photo credits include names such as Jodie Foster, Whoopie Goldberg (in a milk bath), Sting, Ella Fitzgerald, Carly Simon, Vannessa Redgrave, Clint Eastwood, and on December 8, 1980, she shot John Lennon, just five hours before Mark David Chapman did.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono, 1980,
Annie Leibovitz
Annie was born in 1949 in Westport, Connecticut. In 1975, she moved from shooting pictures for Rolling Stone to shooting the Rolling Stones.  In 1983 she moved from Rolling Stone to Vanity Fair, and from there to a high-profile career as a freelance artist, often as famous herself as some of the celebrities she photographs. In spite of the rather weird things she sometimes gets her subjects to do (tying up Clint Eastwood, smearing Sting with mud), she considers herself first and foremost a portrait photographer, though seldom in the tradition of the head and shoulders, balanced lighting, studio tradition we often bring to mind in that context. In fact, she seldom works from a studio. And some of her location shots take as much "setup" work as might be expected for a complex movie scene. The hallmark of her work is personality, whether shooting a First Lady or a Las Vegas showgirl. Some of her best work, she insists, is at least partially accidental, seemingly quite informal, though in fact, her "candid" portrait of Liberace, for instance, took several hours to compose.

Scott Thorson and Liberace, 1981,
Annie Leibovitz
A veteran of dozens of photo expositions of her work, including an exhibition which toured Europe, Annie Leibovitz was teamed with writer Susan Sontag in a book and an exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington titled simply, "Women."  It was a simple theme, but one which allowed both breadth and depth. Within it she displayed Hillary Clinton next to a group shot of Mississippi debutantes, opposite a static portrait of berobed Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O'Conner standing beneath a portrait of a chief Justice from the 1800s (the only male in the entire show). She depicts in black and white, Las Vegas showgirls in nondescript street clothes next to their nearly nude photos in strident color, garish costumes, and full body makeup. Her subjects range from the noble--a 91-year-old, floor scrubbing Oseola McCarty, who donated her life's savings of $150,000 to a university--to the exploitative, a nude, bearded Jennifer Miller, who one day grew tired of shaving. The 70 portrait Corcoran show ran for more than a year.
Vogue cover, 2009, Annie Leibovitz

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