Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life, 1990-2005 at the National Portrait Gallery


Published in Richmond upon Thames College Magazine, April 2009.

Annie Leibovitz is one of the most acclaimed and popular photographers around, making her name by shooting the world’s most famous and working for magazines such as Vanity Fair, Vogue and Rolling Stone. If you hadn’t heard of her before, you probably have now, as her exhibition A Photographer’s Life, 1990-2005 is showing at the National Portrait Gallery at the moment, leaving her name on the lips of everybody in the art and media world. Those of you doing photography probably know more about her than others, as she is someone recommended to study if you are looking at portraiture for the open brief. This is the perfect opportunity to see her work ‘in the flesh’ and learn more about this amazing woman.

With a list of famous people like this, it’s easy for Leibovitz to photograph anyone in the showbiz world. This, however, has caused spectators and critics to question if it’s the celebrity who makes the photo popular, or the way it’s taken. Would Annie’s photo of Whoopi Goldberg in a bath of milk still have the same effect and circulation if the woman in the bath was unknown? I think that it would because Leibovitz’s creative ideas are so plentiful and unique that her photos would be popular, whoever the sitter. What her contact book to be envied has done however, is show celebrities how they want to be shown and depict another side of them which we, as media-hungry people of this day and age, are curious to see and admire.

The exhibition is only of photos from 1990-2005 and merges her professional and personal life. She says “I don’t have two lives. This is one life, and the personal pictures and the assignment work are all part of it.” Walking through the various rooms you see a cosmopolitan collection of photos: landscapes in Georgia, family holiday snapshots, politicians posed in offices, family portraits, elaborate celebrity portraits, documentary photos from Sarajevo in Bosnia, recognisable magazine covers and a lot of pictures depicting the life that Leibovitz shared with her mentor, friend and lover Susan Sontag, who died in 2004. There are some unsettling photos of Sontag while ill and at her deathbed, but hung alongside photos of the two of them in various countries and at home, enjoying themselves.

There are two underlying themes throughout the whole exhibit which are life and death. There are photos that celebrate her life, her family’s life, the lives of the internationally adored (and hated too…) and also her children’s lives. Leibovitz took photos whilst giving birth to her first child Sarah, demonstrating that her love of taking photos shows the love that she has for the subject, as seen in all of her family photos. Then you see the photos of Sontag. One is of her being loaded onto a plane on a stretcher, another shows her lying motionless, dressed in the clothes that Leibovitz chose for her to be buried in. Stark contrast is present throughout, especially in one case. Leibovitz shot Johnny Depp and a naked Kate Moss, an extremely attractive couple (however much I dislike her) on a bed together when they were going out. This is hung next to a photo of a bicycle on the floor, next to a smear of blood on the ground which belonged to the boy who was riding the bike. He had been hit by some sort of conflict in Sarajevo and had died on his way to hospital. The differences are monumental!

I really enjoyed the exhibition, although looking at over 200 photographs is a little monotonous. I recommend it to everyone who is interested in documentary, celebrity, photography or art, not just those who are taking photography A/AS. I look forward to what Leibovitz’s imagination will bring us in years to come.

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