"Annie Leibovitz: Photographs" (1984)

by Donna-Lee Phillips

Pantheon Books/Rolling Stone Press
(New York, 1983). $35.

Rolling Stone is the journal of record for rock music. In its pages talents and trends are discovered, careers are advanced or retarded, private lives are laid open for scrutiny, a cultural "community" is created -- and many, many records and tapes, turntables and speakers, smokes and drinks are sold. Rolling Stone has never been merely a trade rag, however; it has also been the New York Times, Sears Roebuck catalog, and National Enquirer for counterculture America. At its best, Rolling Stone rakes muck and slings mud. To be a Rolling Stone contributor is to be part gonzo journalist and part public-relations flack; it is to enjoy privileged access to the rock galaxy and to exert considerable influence over how its stars will be seen by their public.

Annie Leibovitz began photographing for Rolling Stone in 1970; in 1973, as chief staff photographer, she edited Shooting Stars, an aptly titled anthology documenting a seminal ten years of rock in America. Those early images, like their subjects, were raw and clumsy, grainy black & white icons of a time when all the rules were broken and anything was possible in their place. By the tail end of the Seventies, Rolling Stone -- like rock itself -- had moved uptown; slick-paper stock, four-color spreads and offices on Fifth Avenue, New York City. Leibovitz's Rolling Stone covers were "the most talked-about pictures in the business."

The book Annie Leibovitz: Photographs is a big, glossy, coffee-table compendium of rockers, litterateurs, and stars of stage and screen. Tom Wolfe's staccato introduction describes them as "skinny, topless celebrities" infected with "nostalgie de la boue (nostalgia for the mud) . . . Raw Vital Proles . . . mudbabies who make so much money they can retire in their thirties." These are people who make their livelihoods being photographed; they are being photographed by someone who makes her livelihood photographing people who make their livelihoods being photographed. A certain incestuous similarity among the photographs is, perhaps, inevitable.

In these photographs the audience can share ersatz intimacy with stars discovered dishabillŽ in bed or boudoir: Fleetwood Mac packed under the sheets like sardines; Michael Douglas and wife in the patrimonial bedstead with naked infant; Carly Simon with bruised thigh flung across hubby James Taylor on Oriental rug; patently seductive Linda Ronstadt, rump up in a red "teddy." Here are stylishly staged seductions featuring Debra Winger French-kissing a German shepherd dog in the desert; Muhammad Ali in a possibly inadvertent parody of Scarlett O'Hara on a crimson-carpeted staircase; Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dolly Parton as "Brute and the Bust."

Leibovitz's most reliable portrait format is the intense, smoldering confrontation with a (usually) male star, isolated as a full-figure or full-face close-up in center frame: Norman Mailer, who is dressed; and John Travolta, Calvin Klein, Sylvester Stallone, John Irving, Bruce Springsteen, Matt Dillon, Elvis Costello, James Taylor and Pete Townshend -- many of whom, to one degree or another, are not. Often Leibovitz utilizes a kind of Avedon-ish lineup -- black-bordered and harshly lit -- for groups such as Blondie and The Who, for assorted Rolling Stones, or for a contingent of Dead Heads. Too often, perhaps, she resorts to cleverness: Meryl Streep in whiteface, pulling on her cheeks as if for a skin-mask commercial: The Blues Brothers in blueface; Lily Tomlin and Richard Pryor as Tragedy and Comedy; Steve Martin painted to match his newly acquired Franz Kline; Christo wrapped like a Christo. These were probably effective illustrations for their original editorial purposes, but, in the book, no esthetic alchemy transmutes the ephemeral into the eternal.

By presenting Leibovitz's images in the traditional one-on-a-page art-book format, the publishers -- and the audience -- have ignored what is most remarkable in her work: the extended portraits made over the past decade or so. In Shooting Stars, she wrote of her first meeting with John Lennon: "Here was a person who was a legend to me . . . and to meet him and photograph him . . . and realize that it was alright . . . " That image is tense and confrontational: a tight-lipped, almost forbidding Lennon keeps his emotional distance from the photographer. In the last Lennon photograph, she finds him naked and vulnerable, curled fetus-like around his wife.

After his death, the bereaved Yoko Ono is pictured as a Noh mask, indelibly streaked with tears. The early portraits of a cocky Mick Jagger are a sobering contrast to the ascetic 1980 study that casts a dissolute Jagger as a thin, anguished saint, prophet -- or lunatic. The metamorphosis of Bette Midler from frump on a barstool to succulent nymph showered with red roses is no less fascinating, though -- as in all fairy tales -- its cost is carefully concealed. In the best of her portraits, Leibovitz tears aside the celebrity facade. She photographs Robert Penn Warren as she does many of the men in the book: without his shirt. Unlike the others, he is pasty-skinned and sagging -- old beyond vanity. A solitary and seedy John Belushi -- overweight, disheveled, and weary -- stands like a forlorn hitchhiker beside a cold Staten Island freeway. It doesn't look much like the fast lane.

Leibovitz has certainly taken her share of pedestrian celebrity portraits. She has also made some quite memorable images of people on the entertainment scene. More important, she has produced a unique, fascinating history of those stars. Unfortunately, the book -- for all its deluxe presentation of the photographs -- gives little idea of the scope and meaning of Leibovitz's work.

The following illustration appeared with this review:

Annie Leibovitz, Richard Pryor and Lily Tomlin, Los Angeles, 1974, photograph.

This essay first appeared in Artweek, January 28, 1984, p. 14. © Copyright 1984 by Donna-Lee Phillips. All rights reserved. For reprint permissions contact Donna-Lee Phillips, dlphillips@photocriticism.com.

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