Whether she likes it or not, Annie Leibovitz is very much a celebrity. A celebrity’s celebrity in fact – the rich, famous and powerful queue up to be photographed by her, and her more personal projects are simply cherry-picked, safe in the knowledge that anyone she wants to shoot will be more than obliging. Since her work on a fledgling Rolling Stone, Leibovitz has been present at the growth of the modern celebrity as a commodity, growing within that climate to become a part of the environment, granted unparalleled access and freedom in her work.
A Photographer’s Life at the National Portrait Gallery charts her work, for the most part, from the early nineties through to the present day, a disappointment for those who may have justifiably wanted to see the photographer’s earlier work. However, relatively little is made of the massive scale commercial and advertising work she has become famous for, instead sticking to more personal portraits, such as those taken for Vanity Fair and various smaller scale commissions. There are a fair few standard studio portraits among these, which is somewhat of a disappointment for those familiar with the visual flair usually demonstrated. By her own admission, Leibovitz is far from a great studio photographer – the lighting is well done, but unoriginal, and the studio limits her genius for on-location composition, but those who have come for the famous faces rather than the quality of the images will be suitably impressed by the plethora of names and faces on display.
But moving beyond these images reveals a Leibovitz that is as as original and exciting as she ever was in the drug and alcohol fuelled early days of Rolling Stone. The shots of multiple people in particular are a tour-de-force of every way a photograph can reveal the relationships between people – Johnny Depp, dressed in dark clothing, lies between the legs of a naked Kate Moss on rumpled sheets in a moment of perfect intimacy. Patti Smith shares a delicate, but melancholy moment with her children. Even a photo of the late photographer Richard Avedon with his own companion – a 10×8 field camera – is lovingly crafted in every way to bring out the connection he shared with his greatest tool.
However, the greatest moments in this exhibition are the personal portraits that dot the walls. Often not bigger than 6×4 inches, they seemed to be largely ignored by the celebrity hunting masses in the gallery – who gravitated toward the 20×16 (and larger) images of stars. It seems easy to forgive a visitor for missing a tiny black and white print when it is placed beside an infinitely enthralling shot of Nichole Kidman, but these shots are the massively important (and unseen, up to this point) snaps of family and friends, and comprise everything from a grinning portrait of her dad and brother to the final moments of her dad’s and companion Susan Sontag’s life. While being small, they are just as revealing of the real Annie Leibovitz, and prove that regardless of her status as perhaps the top portrait photographer of our time, she never lost the eye for intimacy and relationships that marked her as great from the early days of her career. Furthermore, they offer a great and compelling insight into the photographer’s private life and not just her publicised work, allowing those who had become jaded with the over-elaborate commercial images that defined her public image in the last ten years a sigh of relief in the knowledge that she has not been overtaken by them.