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Annie Leibovitz, Susan Sontag, Sarajevo and Keith Haring

I unfortunately didn’t have much time left to hang around lately but there are some exhibitions I couldn’t miss. “Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life, 1990-2005“, a major retrospective of Leibovitz’s work, was definitely one of these. Last September, I spent an entire afternoon at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris and I had a wonderful experience. The first time I heard about Annie Leibovitz was by a friend of mine, a photographer who was truly worshipping her. That was just after Keith Haring untimely death in 1990, when I saw the portrait she did of a self-painted and naked Keith Haring (who would have turned 50 this year). I was stunned by how she succeeded to emphasize Haring’s work and personality. A few years later, I read a very interesting article by Susan Sontag, feminist and literary theorist; at this time Sarajevo was under the bombings…

Suddenly, everything took shape. “I don’t have two lives,” Annie Leibovitz writes in the Introduction of the exhibition book. “This is one life, and the personal pictures and the assignment work are all part of it,” and she concludes: “It’s the closest thing to who I am that I’ve ever done.” Indeed. “Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life, 1990-2005” provides a glimpse to the side of the photographer’s life I didn’t know before. Pictures of her family, parents, sibling and children appear alongside portraits of Al Pacino (not my favorite one…), Karen Finley, Scarlett Johansson, Kate Blanchett and Vanessa Redgrave (one of my favorites), Chris Rock (in a meaningful whiteface), Michael Jordan (remember The Shot in 1989?), and some beautiful (Petra and landscapes, Jordan; Sarah, Clifton Point; Sam’s Point Preserve; The Malecón, Havana) and scary (fallen bicycle of teenage boy just killed by a sniper, Sarajevo; the bloody traces of the massacre of Tutsi schoolchildren, Shangi mission school, Rwanda) photos. It was a very strange experience, I could even say an extremely poignant feeling when it came to the photos of a living (The Nile, Egypt; London Terrace, New York; New Year’s Eve in Paris) then ill and soon-to-be dead Susan Sontag… And of course, the black and white cover of the book, a portrait of Annie Leibovitz taken by Susan Sontag herself in 1994; the circle is complete.

When I was a teenager I wanted to be a photojournalist (covering wars and shooting immaculate landscapes, it is not incompatible…) and I must say this exhibition gave me shivers. I liked everything I saw very much, the mixture of genres made totally sense to me because everyone’s life is made of good and bad, strong and futile moments. To me, this is what this exhibition was about, the ups and downs of life, beautifully illustrated without false modesty by a very talented Annie Leibovitz. She exposes her life but I didn’t see any kind of voyeurism, although I could hear some comments from visitors who seemed to be shocked and not understanding why the photographer was ‘so shamelessly‘ showing some of her most intimate moments to the public. And strangely, that is exactly what I think was the core of the exhibition, the cornerstone underpinning the meaning of the event. I could never expose myself and publicly share private events (especially bad ones) as openly as she does. But I think the professional work of Annie Leibovitz is intertwined with her personal life and vice versa, they can’t be separated, they make what the photographer is, her personality, talent and creativity. We all make a coherent whole, our very own personality is made of many different aspects we are not necessarily conscious of, and maybe “Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life, 1990-2005” exhibition illustrates this (self-)consciousness we often try to avoid and that can be sometimes so disturbing for some people to face.

This is how I felt this day of September 2008. When I left the exhibition, I went to the book store to buy the -very heavy- exhibition book. It cost me 90 euros but it is now available for a merely $49 on Amazon, and it is worth it. If you don’t know Annie Leibovitz’s work yet, then this book is a great occasion to see it and if you already appreciate her work, then this book is a must-have.

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