Book Review: Portraits by Annie Leibovitz
By Miabelle Salzano
Traditional portraits are used to capture the personality of the person. Annie Leibovitz’s Portraits goes beyond this by telling us not only about the subject of the portrait, but also what is important to her as the photographer, as well as us as the audience, for you can’t recognize something in others unless you first recognize it in yourself. Leibovitz asked friend and author Alexandra Fuller to write the introduction for her book, without writing about Leibovitz or her artwork. As a result, Fuller discusses the core of Leibovitz’s work through a personal essay about Fuller’s experience with the death of her father. While Fuller explores projection as the motivation of portraiture, what stands out is the idea of what a legacy is and what it means to leave one.
Fuller imagines her father’s death attached to his sense of humor, her last memory (or fantasy) of him immortalizing him in a picture of something that encompassed who he was. Instead, he died in a tattered hospital in Budapest, chained to his bed, and unable to comprehend reality. The images in Portraits are immortalized versions of the subjects, attached to the essentials of their identities and what they would like to be remembered for, for when death comes their legacies will live on through these images. People will know them through what they see in their portraits.
We’ve seen these portraits before: artists in their studios, athletes showing off their abs, Melania Trump posing bikini clad in front of a private jet with Donald totally detached sitting in a Lamborghini... But what we also get, with Leibovitz’s seasoned expertise, is portraiture through objects such as Virginia Woolf’s desk. Much more candid, this photograph captures personal traits that weren’t included in her novels, liquid stains from drinks and inks, displayed for us on the loved surface on which she created her art. While Woolf’s body of work lives on commemorating Virginia Woolf the writer, this desk is what is left of Virginia Woolf the person.
Fuller recalls that “when [her] father died, everything he owned [...] could fit in the modest leather suitcase he’d brought to Africa five decades earlier.” Although her father had such a memorable impact on her, his life was reduced to a small suitcase. This is why Portraits is so important. Leibovitz’s work with celebrities makes these portraits much more powerful since the livelihood of a celebrity relies on holding the public’s attention. Based on this interpretation, Portraits reinforces the idea that 2017’s culture, with the exponential rise of social media, is built upon that fear of being forgotten. It will be up to the public to interpret what these portraits mean as societal values, fears, and priorities change.
Annie Leibovitz’s Portraits masterfully tells the stories of each person she features in the portraits as well as the transcendent and ever-changing story of the society who is looking at them, keeping it an eternally relevant work of art.