Annie Leibovitz is responsible for creating such an iconography, that her authority (meaning legitimacy as an author) is unquestionable. Having said that, and although her work is always in trend (or so my students’ tell me), for the past decade or so I’ve been failing to find any originality in her photographic work. Seeing her recent portraits of Michelle Obama is what brought me to this post. My first reaction was, literally, that she turns everything and everyone into the same: an object, with no soul. We’ve seen the compositions, the poses, the air, the latent content, the only thing that keeps being new is the people who enter her shot. I guess, this could be another example of how style can be interpreted as the exact opposite of a high level of originality and, instead, describe a bundle of strategies that serve to legitimate repetition.
But let’s look at the images (or maybe leave now, this might be a waste of your time): Haven’t we seen this from her before? Why is Leivobitz suggesting that Michelle Obama is about to be abducted by some higher power? And, just as we’re at it, why is she cutting this woman’s foot? If the point was to make Michelle look sexy (maybe suggesting something about the woman who’s about to take her place at the White House?), I think we can all agree this is a failure.
There’s a story about Sontag and Leibovitz that I’m reminded here. Their close friendship is well know, as is the fact that Sontag pushed her to go out of her comfort zone. I can’t exactly point out where I read or heard this, but it was Sontag who, in the 90’s, convinced Leibovitz to go out to the Balkans and see the war through her lens. As expected, that changed her approach to life and art and for some time her photographs reflected that change, that density and maturity. But, as years went on and she kept on photographing big fashion productions, she sort of started to disappear, her voice getting ever more conventional and unoriginal. Sometimes a friend is what it takes to open our mind and I keep thinking that this wouldn’t happen if Sontag was alive (but, I know, this is extremely naif on my part).
It wasn’t my initial intention to be too harsh, but what her photographs now lack in originality they seam to make up in absurdity and eccentricity. In fact, I find them undignified, both of her and some of the individuals she photographs. The play, which, one can say, plays a very important role in the dynamics of an artwork, doesn’t mean that the work lacks gravity; instead, it should mean that the work is experimenting within its boundaries, playing with its internal and external dynamics.
I’m not even going to bring the subject of the Disney-themed photos of celebrities, for it is just too bad, but what happened to the subtlety of her earlier portraits? Did someone whispered to her that she had to keep up with LaChapelle?