Annie Leibovitz: Life Through A Lens

Annie Leibovitz: Life Through A Lens


Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

Before last year’s ‘controversy’ over the Queen allegedly walking out of a photoshoot with Annie Leibovitz (talked up by the BBC to publicise their ‘year in the life’ documentary but subsequently proved to not be the case) it’s doubtful whether too many people outside of the transatlantic media industry had actually heard of her.

This revealing documentary (directed and produced by her younger sister) was finished before all that blew up but the raising of her profile should help bring the punters in – and if it means more people becoming aware of her extraordinary career that can only be a good thing.

To use a metaphor from her own trade, Annie Leibovitz has had a close-up view of the last 40 years of American history. And as the film unfolds you realise how many iconic images of the era she’s created; from reportage shots of Nixon’s downfall through groundbreaking magazine commissions like the Demi Moore ‘pregnancy’ cover of Vanity Fair to the elaborate tableaux which have now become her trademark, her work offers a revealing insight into how perceptions of the photographer’s ‘art’ have changed – and how much the counterculture has become absorbed into the mainstream.

If nothing else it should dispel any notion that the Royal shoot was a case of ‘dignified Brit puts abrasive Yank in their place’. One of the things that shines through very clearly from the footage of Leibovitz at work is how sensitive she is to her subjects, consistently managing to capture original and unexpected images of even the most-photographed actors, performers and politicians.

The subjects themselves (and we really are talking ‘you name them...’ here) line up to sing her praises, but what could have been a luvvies’ love-in instead come across as sincere respect from one professional to another, with the shoot often involving Leibovitz pushing her subject physically and emotionally, or charming them into dropping their guard.

When everyone from Arnold Schwarzenegger and Hillary Clinton to Mick Jagger and Mikhail Baryshnikov says a snapper is the best in the business, you have to sit up and take notice. And because Barbara Leibovitz (a renowned TV documentary maker in her own right) has a unique closeness to her subject, she’s able to take the story of how that came about from the very beginning.

Copious home movie footage depicts Annie growing up in a large family, whose Air Force dad was constantly taking them to new postings around the world. The kids were on camera from the start, with "the car window forming a picture frame" on all their long journeys. Annie grabs the camera at an early age, then takes a photography course while studying art in San Francisco, just as the Summer of Love gets into full swing.

Her shots of the riots and love-ins grab attention immediately. Taken on as a staffer by Rolling Stone (already the in-house journal of the hippie movement) she finds herself working with the likes of Hunter S Thompson and Tom Wolfe, while being sent on assignment with no instructions except: "get good pictures." She obliges in spades, delivering candid shots of John and Yoko and telling ones of America’s post-Watergate turmoil.

Her career blossoms, and she becomes the lensperson of choice for Vanity Fair and Vogue. But the film is far from a whitewash or a hagiography. Her drug problems (perhaps inevitable for someone told to follow the Stones on tour in their ‘excess all areas’ prime) are dealt with frankly, and she undoubtedly comes across as a perfectionist, demanding a similar commitment to ‘getting the job right’ from everyone around her as she herself exhibits.

It’s also revealing (though I would have liked to have found out even more) about her relationship with the writer Susan Sontag. Losing her long-term partner and her father in a short space of time has obviously affected her profoundly and some of the film’s most moving scenes are when she talks about her loss and expresses it through her work.

All in all, definitely worth a look, if only for the sight of Keith Richards cheerfully admitting he can’t remember when, where or how most of her pictures of him were taken, or George Clooney meekly agreeing to "move your bottom around a bit more". You might argue that her elaborate production number shoots lack the cutting edge of her earlier work (orchestrating a Versailles-themed tableau with Kirsten Dunst and Jason Schwartzmann doesn’t seem quite as important or exciting as working with John Lennon and Muhammad Ali). But in an era where so much celeb photography is either airbrushed, PR-approved gloss or grubby ‘we can see your knickers’ paparazzi shots, it’s a refreshing look at a genuine artist who remains genuinely committed to trying something different.

Top picture shows: Nicole Kidman, New York, 2003; Photographs (c) 2007 by Annie Leibovitz from the documentary Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens, Barbara Leibovitz, Director

Reviewed on: 09 Jan 2008
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Documentary focusing on the American photographer.
Amazon link

Director: Barbara Leibovitz

Year: 2006

Runtime: 79 minutes

Country: US


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