Picture me this

Photographer Annie Leibovitz is in the news again. She’s under fire for taking a slightly (very slightly) risqué picture of Miley Cyrus, who, in case you don’t know, is a 15-year-old singing sensation. Or, to be more precise, Hannah Montana is a 15-year-old singing sensation, but she’s fictional: she’s the character impersonated by Cyrus on TV, on film and in concert.
I think.

Obviously it was David Bowie’s invention of the persona of Ziggy Stardust, the apocalyptic pop god, that distantly inspired such an idea. He was the first to create a fictional self as vehicle for his musical art. But Bowie also came to fame in a burst of controversy, telling the world he was bisexual and so was his wife. That was shocking in the early 1970s. Cyrus Montana, on the other hand, needs to keep her image squeaky clean if she’s to be a role model for young ladies who haven’t yet reached their mid teens. The whiff of sexuality must not touch her virginal image, for, as we know, sex must not even be thought about in the Land of the Free until you are officially of age—and can go straight on to star in your first porn movie at 18.

Leibovitz’s mistake was to take a picture of Cyrus-Montana with a bare back, clutching a sheet to her front (no breasts, sexual or non-sexual, are on show), as though she’d just woken from sleep and been surprised by a slightly prurient observer. The sheet-clutching at least shows some modesty or prudishness on Cyrus-Montana’s part, but I suppose the presentation of her with any flesh showing is too much for Middle America (and her sponsors at Disney) to take. Of course, the fact that she wears tight jeans or short skirts at other times, and spends much time pouting cutely at the camera, has nothing to do with selling herself as a sexual being in any way whatsoever.

This brouhaha would have fitted usefully into Barbara Leibovitz’s documentary about her big sister, Annie Leibovitz: Life through a Lens. It traces some of the Leibovitz family background and follows the photographer’s career as she tumbles into working at Rolling Stone, the great alternative-culture magazine of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and onwards to her more stylised and over-the-top work for Vanity Fair.

Leibovitz has been roundly criticised for her Vanity Fair photographs. The pictures she produces for that magazine tend to be elaborate set-ups in lush colour. These contrast strongly with her earlier Rolling Stone work, which was almost all in black and white, was much more documentary in feel and was, of course, a lot more rock’n'roll in spirit—though there was also the famous portrait of John Lennon clinging nakedly to Yoko Ono, taken mere hours before he was shot in the other, more deadly way one can be shot. The extravagant Vanity Fair photos look as if they are pandering to the worst excesses of the celebrity culture and the most inflated egos in the realm of stardom.

That may be. But then the images Leibovitz has put on the cover of Vanity Fair—and inside it—are often unforgettable; some are among the most famous celebrity portraits of our time. Everyone remembers Whoopi Goldberg in a bath of milk and Bette Midler on a bed of red roses, not to mention a naked and pregnant Demi Moore or a nude Arnold Schwarzenegger in the pose of Rodin’s Thinker. Obviously, there is some irony at work here too, at least at times, and it seems silly to criticise Leibovitz for expanding her repertoire and earning her living.

The film gives a fascinating insight into Leibovtiz at work, in this case shooting Kirsten Dunst at Versailles at about the time she was making Marie Antoinette. It also goes to intimate places such as Leibovitz’s drug problems (acquired, inevitably, after she’d been on tour with the Rolling Stones), her long romantic relationship with Susan Sontag (whose death from cancer she documented movingly) and her dealings with family members. One moment in particular is touching, as Leibovitz explains simply to her adoptive child that a dead grandparent is going into the ground to merge back with the earth. No heaven mumbo-jumbo here.

The documentary is framed by Leibovitz working on a retrospective book of her work, so this is a good opportunity to see the range of her photographs—by no means just the lavish celebrity portraits. She comes across as an engaging, up-front person, if a trifle megalomaniac at times; the testimony of others bears this out.

The problem with Annie Leibovitz: Life through a Lens is that it’s really not a big-screen movie. Made for the United States Public Broadcasting System’s American Masters series, it’s obviously a television piece. Certainly, watching it on a big or biggish screen is eye torture: at the critics’ screening the Ster-Kinekor projectionist was probably not trying very hard to get it in focus, which is par for the course, but the film is in any case shot on video, or old family super-8, so it’s particularly fuzzed-out when blown up to big-screen proportions.

Either way, it’s disastrous for a piece about a photographer: when Leibovitz shoots Dunst in a busy Versailles setting and surrounded by courtiers it’s almost impossible to see which one is Dunst in the final image. On the positive side Leibovitz’s work is presented with only a small amount of the usual irksome effects such as zooming into still pictures or panning needlessly across them. Now I just need to get the DVD, or the coffee-table book, so I can actually see the photographs.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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