The Artist’s Presentation of Self:
Annie Leibovitz at the High Museum
by Philip Auslander
Annie Leibovitz at the High Museum, in front of her photograph Monument Valley, Arizona, 1993
I have long been interested in the practice of asking visual artists to speak about their work, as museums, universities, and other institutions so often do. While I don’t see anything wrong with wanting artists to articulate what they do, I also find myself wondering whether, in the end, we believe that the work speaks for itself. If so, why do we want the artist to speak for it as well?
Hearing an artist speak is not just about the ideas and whatever light they may shed on the work, however; it is also about having an encounter with the artist as a person, perhaps as a celebrity. And the persona the artist presents on such an occasion must somehow meet the needs of the audience, whether for information about the art and the process that led to it or for an opportunity to rub shoulders with a famous person.
During the press conference held in conjunction with the arrival of Annie Leibovitz’s exhibition A Photographer’s Life: 1990-2005 at the High Museum in Atlanta, on May 11, 2007, Leibovitz addressed this task with skill and aplomb. While many in her audience wanted to treat her as a celebrity, she consistently downplayed her own fame and that of her photographic subjects, emphasizing instead the common humanity of all.
As Leibovitz walked through the show discussing selected images and their backgrounds, intriguing fault lines appeared in her self-presentation. At one moment, she described herself as “an artist who uses photography” rather than a photographer while insisting, at other moments, on her identity as a working photographer much of whose work is commissioned by magazine editors. She distanced herself from journalism, however, arguing that her work reflects a point of view rather than a journalist’s objectivity. Nevertheless, standing in front of a formal portrait of President George W. Bush and his cabinet, she suggested that the photograph was staged and composed in such a way that those who agree with Bush would see it as admiring, while those who disagree would see it as critical.
The conceit of the exhibition is, in the museum’s words, to bring together “images Leibovitz created on assignment as a professional photographer [with] personal photographs of her family and close friends.” Many of the personal images are of Susan Sontag, to whom Leibovitz was close for the 14 years prior to Sontag’s death; they provide a glimpse of both their private life together and Sontag’s decline. Despite the intimacy of these pictures, Leibovitz referred consistently to “Susan” without ever specifying the nature of their relationship.
It should be clear that in pointing out Leibovitz’s inconsistencies and reticence I seek neither to criticize nor psychoanalyze her. Rather, they constitute the details of the performance of an artistic identity that reflects the ambiguities inherent in Leibovitz’s position as a photographer with one foot in the world of magazines and the other in the art world. Is such a person to be understood as a graphic artist or a fine artist? As she moves back and forth between those roles, what is the relationship between the two bodies of work produced? Perhaps the role of artist requires the communication of a point of view that the role of journalist precludes. But photography, as opposed to painting, has long been seen as somehow inherently objective—the image, after all, is recorded by a machine rather than by a human being (it was for this reason that photographs were originally excluded from copyright). As Sontag puts it in On Photography, photographs enjoy a “presumption of veracity”: “there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what’s in the picture.” As some photography has come to be considered fine art, it has not completely lost this connotation, even though its mechanical, utilitarian, and journalistic associations undermine its status as art, a tension indicated in Leibovitz’s competing self-descriptions as both a lens for hire and an “artist who uses photography.”
The distinction between “personal” and “on assignment” is similarly fraught with tension. The idea of the “professional photographer” working on assignment evokes an image of the photographer as functionary, executing someone else’s ideas. This leaves the personal as the realm in which the photographer can act as an artist to convey her own vision. Leibovitz’s comments reflect the difficulty of maintaining such a distinction. She wants us to see the work she does on assignment not as journalistic but as reflective of her own point of view, even as the realities of what it means to take photographs of public figures for mainstream publications haunt the margins of her comments on the photograph of President Bush. In one sense, Leibovitz’s reticence with respect to Sontag made those images seem particularly intimate, as if what’s represented in them is too personal even to be spoken. But since that reticence also cuts her audience off from her point of view, it may contribute to an impression that these images are those of the photographer showing us what was there, rather than the artist showing us what she felt.
Meeting the press, Leibovitz seemed open, affable, accessible. She spoke well and enthusiastically about her work and her roles as photographer and artist. Her presentation of artistic identity was not seamless, however, and as the seams became visible, they suggested a fascinating subtext concerning the inherent tensions between photographer and artist, objectivity and subjectivity, personal and professional, public and private.
Atlanta, May 2007
Philip Auslander teaches Performance Studies at Georgia Tech.