November 4, 2008

Annie Liebovitz: Life Through A Lens


Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ***½

She has been for such a long while -- in my mind, at least -- a celebrity photographer (in both senses of the phrase) that, until I saw Annie Liebovitz: Life Through A Lens, I had pretty much forgotten her early work for Rolling Stone: the San Francisco hippie revolution, politics, police, even Nixon's resignation. So this new-to-DVD documentary, directed by Annie's sister Barbara Liebovitz, is a very good reminder of, shall we say, better times. First televised in 2006 via the PBS American Masters series, the 80-minute film is, yes, hagiography of sorts. Yet, to her credit, B. Liebovitz allows some criticism of A. Liebovitz to emerge from the mouths of a few of her interviews.

We don't get a lot of this criticism, and what there is remains guarded and not much further explored. Yet it makes for a sort of balance. Annie is indeed a fine photographer, one that is better, I feel, the less resources and money she has at her disposal. While some of her celebrity glam shots are interesting and well enough handled (we see everything from the famous Meryl-Streep-in-make-up to the more recent Keira Knightley and pals doing a very unnecessary Wizard of Oz update), it's when she has just her camera and a subject that she excels: Susan Sontag or any of her many other portraits, or ever her coverage of things as disparate as the Lennon/Ono pairing or the Bosnian War. The "celebrity culture" thing, as critic Vicki Goldenberg points out, is actually a rather "shabby culture." Which pretty much defines venues such as Vanity Fair and Vogue, where much of Liebovitz’s work appears today.

Annie Liebovitz: Life Through a Lens takes us from the photographer's early days with her family through her photos of Jagger, Richards and the Stones; Baryshnikov, Mark Morris and other dance-inspired photography; what she learned from the very fine designer and photo editor Bea Feitler; how shooting Bette Midler amidst all those roses set her on course toward fancier "conceptual" covers; a smattering of her addiction problem and time in rehab; even a bit about the children she finally had at age 50. Most interesting of all is her friendship with writer Susan Sontag, to which I suspect an entire program could have been devoted. If you’re a Liebovitz fan but have not already seen this film, you'll certainly want to rent it. And even if you aren't much of a fan, I suspect you'll come away from the documentary something of a convert.

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Posted by cphillips at November 4, 2008 10:21 AM
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