I bought the Annie Liebovitz book Women earlier this month with a forward by Susan Sontag and was looking through it last night thinking about my reaction to the photographs. Liebovitz started as a photographer for Rolling Stone in the early days of the magazine and has become justly famous for her photographs of not only the rock and roll crowd, but her entire generation.
When you critique a photograph or a collection of photographs, at least at the levels I know about, you are revealing much more about your own tastes and preferences than you are about the talent or lack of talent of the photographer. This is a study by Liebovitz on the subject of women. That's a load of bricks. She gets points just for the attempt. Much like The Family of Man, (you know, the whole package: birth, life, death?) except The Family of Man had the pick of the best photographs by the best photographers of the century for material. So it worked. Still, Liebovitz is a big time photographer heavy and Sontag is a big time writer heavy with all kinds of feminist overtones so the book is worth examining whatever the content. My thoughts had to do with how the photographs spoke to me, how they were shot (not one lousy footnote: camera, film, f stop, for Christ's sake!), how they were posed, how they worked at an intellectual level and at an emotional level. And then, finally, what was my take on their subject? You are all waiting for my opinion. I can tell.
Liebovitz has been photographing the rich, the powerful and the famous since the beginning of time
and I assume her photographs of women such as Barbara Bush, Sigorney Weaver, Ellen DeGeneres, Drew Barrymore and Elizabeth Taylor were taken from photographs she's accumulated over these many years so the selection is excellent. Some of them, the less formal photographs of Ann Richards, former governor of Texas; Eudora Wetley, writer; and Carla Fiorina, CEO, are spot on; similarly the portraits of Marilyn Leibovitz, the photographer's mother; Patti Smith, musician; Susan Sarandon, actress; Yoko Ono, artist. Powerful photographs in any context. My thoughts tended, of course, toward the nuts and bolts: how do you shoot pictures like these? Working with famous people, particularly the performers, must be, um, complicated. How do you get enough time to take the picture you want to take? These are performers. They've been photographed by everybody, many of them better than you'll ever be on the best day of your life. Everyone's seen their images. More than that, they are in the image business themselves, performers, as I said. How do you get them to work with you and experiment to get the image you're looking for? Whichever way, you get it fast.
My own snapshots are usually taken with the subject unaware or at least momentarily unaware of the camera, when the subject is in their own world without particular thought to their surroundings. Everyone has their "stand still for a picture" persona. Some people just duck. I have one. You have one. Most all of them are hopelessly stiff, most all of them reveal nothing particularly genuine of the person within, some few of them can give you a nice acceptable shot through years of practice. So I go for the candids and occasionally I get lucky. Over time I've learned to see some of them coming, but most of them have no particular art associated with the outcome, they just happened while I was pressing the shutter.
That's why I say talking about a book like Liebovitz's Women has more to do with the inner
core and prejudices (and passions and likes) of the critic than the artist. I like photo journalism, the so called photography of the street, so I tend to immediately warm to photographs of this type. We all bring our own baggage to a collection like this, we've all seen most of these women so we bring an a priori opinion of their personas, the characters they've played on the stage or on the news or in the political arena. I very much like the photograph of Maya Lin, for example, the architect and the designer of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. What little I know about Lin I learned from a documentary on PBS, so I'm prepared to like any image of her. Does that mean the image of Maya Lin is great because Liebovitz shot a great picture of Maya Lin or because given the choice, in another life, I would have liked to have known Maya Lin better and am favorably disposed to her photograph? I suspect, in this case, both.
Same with the photographs of subjects like Ellen DeGeneris and Rosie O'Donnell. Both really excellent photographs, probably through the efforts of Liebovitz and the subjects together. The photograph of Ann Richards is perfect. That photograph is the very successful female governor of Texas. All the elements tell you that. I was similarly attracted to the panorama photojournalist shot of Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters and Oprah Winfrey and the Kilgore Collage Rangerettes, the first two taken "in between" shots, the other carefully posed. Others were very good, but very good in the sense they remind you of images you've seen before. Katherine Graham in the news room at the Post, Betty Ford at the Betty Ford Center.
Oh, hell, this is dragging on and it needs a lot of rewriting and rethinking and I don't have the time to rewrite and rethink because it's already tomorrow and I've got to finish tomorrow's entry tonight and, well, then there's Tuesday coming up and I don't even have a picture for Tuesday yet. These things drive you a little crazy, of course, but that's part of this journal experiment sitting here writing with Ally McBeal playing in the background. I'll recap Women tomorrow when I've had more time to think about it.