THE SELLING OF ANNIE LEIBOVITZ

There, up on the stage, was Annie Leibovitz. At the very sight of the celebrity photographer, the standing-room-only audience in the theatre at Phoenix Art Museum burst into applause.

Leibovitz is a tall, angular woman with a nose as prominent as the one that gave the late writer Lillian Hellman such a memorable appearance in her famous advertising photograph for a mink coat. Leibovitz wore black slacks and a black sweater. It looked almost like a judo outfit. Smiling seemingly does not come easily for America's most famous celebrity photographer. It should, however. Her ascension to supercelebrity status is really a delightful piece of humor.

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Leibovitz, who has now been embraced by no less a sponsor and patron than American Express, got her start in 1970 as a freelancer for Rolling Stone magazine in the days before it moved to New York City and took itself so seriously that it became boring beyond belief.

One of Leibovitz's greatest assets in those days-she was still in her 20s-was her stamina. This made it possible for her both to travel and do drugs with rock groups like the Rolling Stones.

Here is how Leibovitz was described by Robert Draper in his book, Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History:

Leibovitz was susceptible to self-doubt, to accusations that she was second-rate, or worthless without drugs. She'd gone on tour with the Rolling Stones as their official photographer, developing a mean crush on Mick Jagger, stubbornly believing that he had written `Memory Motel' about her... People began to call Annie Leibovitz a prima donna. She arrived late at photo shoots and sometimes did not arrive at all...She continued to report lost cameras on her expense sheet, though insiders knew the equipment was being traded in for drugs...Annie Leibovitz walked with the dark princes-John Belushi, Keith Richards, Hunter Thompson. Twice she overdosed and nearly died." Her biggest break came when she took a photograph of the pathetic John Lennon, naked and curled up in a fetal position on top of his wife, Yoko Ono. Lennon was shot to death only two hours later, and Leibovitz has been making capital off this coincidence ever since, as though her being on the scene at the Dakota was a great example of inspired reportage.

Leibovitz was introduced by Bruce Kurtz, the curator of contemporary art at Phoenix Art Museum, which is currently showing an exhibition of 120 of her photographs taken from 1970 to the present.

Kurtz told the audience how gracious," generous" and amazingly thoughtful" it had been of Leibovitz to agree to autograph her $60 book for fans. All they had to do was to ship it to her New York City office with return postage.

Miss Leibovitz won't be able to autograph any books today," Kurtz said, because she is on a tight schedule and must rush to the airport."

In recent years, Leibovitz has been doing most of her work for Vanity Fair magazine. Her most-talked-about photograph has been the nude portrait of actress Demi Moore, the wife of Bruce Willis.

Vanity Fair ran the picture on the cover. What made this so remarkable was the fact that Moore appeared to be nine months' pregnant in the photograph.

Leibovitz explained how the idea came about.
When Demi came to my studio, she threw up her skirt to show me. She felt so proud, so glamorous."

Leibovitz said she realized that with Moore's backing the idea, there was a chance that Tina Brown, editor of Vanity Fair, would actually put the photograph on the magazine's cover.

Reactions around the country ranged from semi-outrage to total outrage, but the magazine sold in huge quantities that month. Commercially, Demi Moore's swollen belly was a solid hit.

Leibovitz explained her view of the controversy:
I think it only shows something about the way we use women in this country. Just because she was pregnant, were we supposed to stand in a corner and not be seen?"

The reaction of the audience to Leibovitz was one of the most telling aspects about the museum's event. Most had waited in line outside the theatre for more than an hour, waiting for the doors to open to rush in for a seat. Throughout her talk, many sat leaning forward, trying to show how pleased they were to be with this group of cultural insiders. Many were employees of American Express, who understood that it was the in" thing to appreciate Leibovitz for the Nineties. And yet Leibovitz's work, as reflected in the exhibit and her book of collected photographs, is not what she or her followers claim it to be.

It is not a mirror of the times. There is no compassion for anyone. There is no humor. There is only the obvious and constant attempts of the photographer to be noticed.

And so we get Whoopi Goldberg in a bathtub filled with milk, Ella Fitzgerald with her hands on her hips looking like some old street madam, and Arnold Schwarzenegger appearing almost deformed. It gets worse.

In a sycophantic interview at the front of her book, readers are informed that in her New York studio that overlooks the Hudson River, Leibovitz displays an autographed photograph from Michael Jackson. Yes, that Michael Jackson. Of course, he has been one of her subjects.

The inscription reads: Love to Annie. You're really magical."
Leibovitz sometimes wonders whether she has sold out. This is amazing. How can a woman who is obviously so bright have to ask such a question?

 
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