Leibovitz Sees Glitz and Grit, Sontag Broods on the Big Idea

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Women , photographs by Annie Leibovitz, essay by Susan Sontag. Random House, 239 pages, $75.

At the beginning of the essay that introduces her friend Annie Leibovitz’s new book of pictures, Women , Susan Sontag tells us that most of the women photographed are fully clothed, and therefore it is “not the other kind of all-women picture book …” That is a silly disclaimer since, in the past several years, coffee table books of photographs of fully clothed women-sisters, mothers and daughters-have been best sellers. By ignoring those books and opposing Ms. Leibovitz’s photographs of women to male-generated pornography, Ms. Sontag is letting the reader-viewer know that these are serious pictures, developed in the political darkroom of late 20th-century America, and are meant to instruct as much as to delight. The essay does not mention that most pop culture consumers identify Ms. Leibovitz’s photos with Vanity Fair , where they play a crucial role in creating and sustaining the pornography of affluence and fame. But if the pictures are Ms. Leibovitz’s, the photographer credits Ms. Sontag for “the idea of the book.” Can an Annie Leibovitz photograph, however compelling and even mesmerizing, support a big idea?

The idea of putting Ms. Sontag and Ms. Leibovitz between one set of covers is inspired, to say the least; the former’s New York Review of Books crowd mingling with the latter’s fans downtown at Lot 61. In fact, Ms. Sontag’s essay is an attempt to wrest Ms. Leibovitz’s photographs back from the magazine pages where they help sell movie stars and BMW’s, and to push them in the direction of documentary. Move over, Sebastião Salgado! But Ms. Leibovitz is really an artist, not a journalist. Her photos create moments more than they capture them. They are stage directed and choreographed. When it works-like the picture of former Texas governor Ann Richards toting a shotgun, or a dour-looking Rosie O’Donnell in a Charlie Chaplin getup, or Jerry Hall suckling her naked baby boy-Ms. Leibovitz is helping us to see beneath the surface of things. At times, though, you feel like you’ve stumbled onto the set of an Annie Leibovitz Production. Nothing particularly wrong with that-after all, you never forget you’re reading Nabokov when you’re reading Nabokov-but the essay and the layout of the book make much larger claims for Ms. Leibovitz’s oeuvre .

By interspersing sexy photographs of Heidi Fleiss and Nicole Kidman with closeup shots of victims of domestic violence at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City, Ms. Leibovitz and Ms. Sontag have created a book that fairly hammers you over the head with its agenda. On one page, you get three Houston socialites with big hats and fake smiles; on the next, black coal miners in Alabama. Rather than letting you get drawn into the photographs, Women wants to make sure you get the point. If you want to look at Sigourney Weaver in a fishnet body stocking and shiny black ankle boots, well, you better not skip over the photograph of two grossly overweight women outside a gas station in rural Texas. The problem is, the book’s point-that women come in all shapes and sizes; that women are still oppressed; that women grow old; that women are deans of law schools and farmers and astronauts and scientists-feels a bit tired by now. Surely we know these things.

Ms. Sontag would perhaps respond that we do know them, but that we don’t know them enough. If we did, women would earn equal pay to men and would not be subject to reflexive hostility when they show ambition and independence. Fair enough. But the essay ignores the photos that accompany it. Read Ms. Sontag’s critique of “today’s hugely complex fashion-and-photography system” and you wonder if she bothered to turn to the book’s last page, where Ms. Leibovitz ends her acknowledgments with, “I am extremely grateful to Anna Wintour and Vogue .” If only Ms. Sontag had written an essay that tackled head-on Ms. Leibovitz’s financial and artistic symbiosis with “today’s hugely complex fashion-and-photography system.” What would she make of the photograph, taken from below, of the red panties and crotches of four faceless, high-kicking Kilgore College Rangerette cheerleaders? Is it commentary-the male sports establishment exploits women by making them dress up as cheerleaders-or is it appreciation? How does the photograph jibe with Ms. Sontag’s statement that this is a book about women’s “ambition,” which women have been “schooled to stifle in themselves”? Is a photograph of women’s underwear a celebration of ambition?

Ms. Sontag may not be particularly interested in what male viewers think of Ms. Leibovitz’s pictures. Her essay dismisses men as bores. She writes, “A book of photographs of women must, whether it intends to or not, raise the question of women-there is no equivalent ‘question of men.’ Men, unlike women, are not a work in progress.”

Of course it is always interesting to read Ms. Sontag on any subject. Dispatches from her pen come so rarely these days that one imagines tweedy, bookish types crouched in the corner of Barnes & Noble, furtively reading her essay and saving their 75 bucks. As much as this offering can read like a Hillary Clinton stump speech, it does have its moments. Ms. Sontag tells us that in Russia, women being photographed mouthed the French phrase ” pe-tite-pomme ” seconds before the camera’s flash, whether or not they knew the words’ meaning, because doing so left the mouth, eyes and cheeks in the most flattering position.

One of the most powerful images in Women is of Ms. Sontag herself. The black-and-white portrait closes the book; Ms. Sontag, her hair gone fully white and cut short, is shown in profile, her chin resting on her hand, her eyes looking away from the camera. Her mouth is in a small half-smile, but the effect is broody, as if she were hatching the big idea.

And looking at the photographs of the women in Women , the most striking thing about them is precisely their joyless quality. Yes, women can be astronauts and coal miners-but they can also laugh, smile, flirt, dance and be outrageous. Not here. It’s as if the mirthful element of the female character has been carefully edited out. Women have come a long way, but under Ms. Leibovitz’s gaze they don’t have much fun

Leibovitz Sees Glitz and Grit, Sontag Broods on the Big Idea