Annie Leibovitz, Having Seen

Annie Leibovitz, the grand dame of Vogue, Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone covers, was the one facing flashbulbs. The other morning she gave a private press tour of her new show at the Brooklyn Museum.

“Walk slowly. Watch your cameras,” she said. Microphone booms swung through the air, nearly knocking the photos off the wall. “Careful, we have lots of time,” she said as she was followed.

Ms. Leibovitz has recently been profiled in Newsweek, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. She has a new book, “Annie Leibovitz: A Photographers Life, 1990-2005,” and a retrospective of her work that will travel the world.

“It was time to look back at my work,” Ms. Leibovitz said. She wore a faded black button-up shirt, tapered black jeans, and heavy work boots. “It was like being on an archeological dig finding these pictures,” she said.

One entire wall was snapshots of her family at the beach, her parents in bed, her children wet with afterbirth in the delivery room, and hotel rooms with rumpled bed sheets, Susan Sontag included.

On another wall Donald Trump sat in a sports car and a hugely pregnant Ivana sported a gold lame bikini on the stairs of a gigantic jet. A portrait of Colin Powell in full military regalia hung near the Clintons on election night.

Ms. Leibovitz said the idea for the exhibit “came out of a moment,” when she faced the deaths of Sontag and her father, plus the birth of her twins, by a surrogate mother.

On one wall Sontag battles cancer in a hospital bed, another shows her being wheeled on a gurney to a private plane in Seattle to be air-evacuated to a hospital in New York. A small print in a corner shows Sontag’s corpse at a funeral home. She is dressed in Italian silk.

In “On Photography,” Sontag had written: “To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have.””

With every photo, regardless of the narrative, it’s clear that sometimes Ms. Leibovitz was an intruder in her own life. The exhibit, which gives such a remarkable window into Ms. Leibovitz’s private world, also shows the limits of that view.

Ms. Leibovitz said that she enjoys how her magazine assignments create a sense of history, but that her personal work is her strongest work, in fact because she is know to her subjects.

“Most people don’t like to have their picture taken,” Ms. Leibovitz said. “They have to confront themselves.” Every photo involves problem solving. “It’s never easy.”

And with that, Ms. Leibovitz left the room, accompanied by two women in black suits. “I mean, you wouldn’t expect anything less,” said a reporter, who wore a sticker that read Panarama. “She’s a living legend.”
— Kaija Helmetag