Annie Liebovitz, Life Through a Lens, 1993 documentary
Director: Barbara Liebovitz
IMDB offers a straightforward summary of Life Through a Lens:
“This film traces the artistic self-realization of Annie Leibovitz, from childhood through the death of her beloved friend, Susan Sontag, and includes snippets of Leibovitz’s last visual memories of Sontag. The film traces the arc of her photographic life, her aspirations to artistry, and the trajectory of her career through phases that included the tumultuous sixties in Berkeley, CA., touring with the Rolling Stones, a mentorship by Hunter S. Thompson, and, later, capturing the last candid moments of John Lennon’s life with Yoko Ono. It closes with her reflections on life, children, and the wake of her relationship with Sontag. The archival material presented here is invaluable for framing an understanding of this immeasurably influential visual artist.”
Jane and Kimberly look through the lens of a Greek myth and see Annie Liebovitz as a great example of how women are sweeping past any constriction laid by history on gender.
JAS: If we were ever to need evidence of the myth of Persephone as still very much alive in modern women, we could point to the life of Annie Liebovitz. Annie Liebovitz falls through the crack of an ordinary girlhood into the mysterious allure of the Hades-laden world of the Rolling Stones and then climbs, hand over hand, ledge by ledge, up from the mythic Underground to make major cultural contributions in our upper world. It’s all here in the documentary, Annie Liebovitz: Life Through a Lens.
KC: I love how you bring in the metaphor of the Underworld to describe Annie. When the God of Hades took Persephone to rule by his side, she became privy to that world’s seductive power and had to learn how to navigate it as its queen.
JAS: As you know, from our work with the movie, Tracks, and other stories women are telling, I’ve been on the lookout for the missing story of how Persephone made it back up from her experience in the Underground and I believe we’re finding it in the lives of modern women. Annie’s life gives me evidence of the Persephone Return as told by a woman rather than mythologized as a concession by Zeus, a facilitation by Hermes and a sacrifice by Hades when her mother, Demeter, went into such mourning over the loss of her daughter that she shut down fertility and humanity was starving. The capability of the daughter was left out of the picture told by the ancient Greeks. Maybe it’s taken a few centuries for her to tell her story but I do believe modern women all over the world are filling in her story, maybe in the nick of time.
KN: Let me fill in a few things that I believe show Annie seeing things for herself in that Underworld that set off change. Annie’s first pieces for Rolling Stone magazine were made while she was at art school. They were Vietnam War demonstration photos from her travels and when she was then given assignments based on that work, she mentions how the other students in her photography class kind of poo-pooed the work because there was this attitude about what serious photography was. A serious photographer was supposed to be an artist, and not someone working for a magazine. But Annie dived into the work: here was this woman who was observing and presenting a very cock-sure and ego-heavy arena at the time in a vehicle of popular culture. The fact that as a woman, she was let in to gain this kind of bird’s eye view was pretty extraordinary at the time. It was as if in a way she was being let in to a very exclusive boys’ club. Like Persephone, she was being given a glimpse into this sort of locker room of the Gods. She has said about her early days working with the band The Rolling Stones that she really learned “About how people in an audience can lose a sense of themselves and melt into a frenzied, mindless mass. Mick and Keith had tremendous power both onstage and off. They would walk into a room like young gods. I found that my proximity to them lent me power also. A new kind of status. It didn’t have anything to do with my work. It was power by association.” For a young woman starting her career, that kind of power is alluring. Yet, Annie, like Persephone, did not fall prey to the glitter of this underworld, she instead learned how to utilize her lens to wield its own kind of power in return. She would emerge from that Hades to inform her own unique perspectives of the world through a photographic career that indeed posited the human beings in our popular cultural sphere as god-like beings living very large lives akin to the scale of myth.
JAS: You’re bringing up a ton of thoughts about the ability of women to keep their wits about them when everything around them is moving fast and loose. Annie has actually gotten help from her filmmaker sister making this documentary and, it’s worth noting, that Annie’s love of family is an on-going strength. Adding new to old, Annie’s story is being told by her real-life sister, Barbara Liebovitz. Lot of trust there. Barbara is herself a keen observer and gifted visualizer who looks through her own lens to give us a revealing view of Annie. We see a teenage rebellious streak lead Annie away from suburbia even while she holds dear an abiding love for her parents and siblings. She has no regrets about getting swept up into Rolling Stones druggy sex life at age 21, a tough stint in rehab nor her atypical relationship with the counter-culture journalist Hunter S Thompson.
KC: Right, she dives into her own initiation by fire and embraces it fully. Instead of just being a bystander, she jumps in head first to experience the world for herself. Rather than just a calculated observer, she becomes one with her subject. Just like when she hangs out with the cantankerous Hunter S. Thompson and ends up being a rare person allowed into his particular insanity. Not just a detached lens, she becomes one with these gods, strolling in their kingdom and living up to the largeness, following her own rebellious streak into a grand land of experimentation. Yet her suburban vanilla foundation allows for her to walk through this fire, get burned, and then come out on the other side to evolve a career that has come far beyond her Rolling Stone days.
JAS: I think she did a bit of separation from those ‘gods’, took the vision of largeness and feminized it by including a love of her subject and personal relationship. Perhaps we could say that she’s fashioned a goddess-like largeness, gone on to live an epic life but of a feminine sort. While with the love of her life, the prolific Susan Sontag, Annie satisfied a deep desire for children and family to the point of birthing one child herself and adopting twins by a surrogate. And then, perhaps again driven by a rebellious streak that didn’t disappear when she changed from adolescent to woman, she embraces commercial fashion photography. Combining art with commerce at Vanity Fair, she’s gained a reputation for bossiness on the job and extravagance expenditures on her shoots but has also made outstanding breakthroughs in the serious art of photography.
KC: Yes, she is even oftentimes described as diva-like. Yet, we can see that her immersion with the stars has only contributed to a star-like quality in herself, a compulsion to take risks, an ability to think grand. She’s working on an epic scale here. Her immersion has carved her career as one where the world is her easel and it shows.
JAS: I believe she puts a positive spin on a woman’s ability to immerse herself in work while maintaining care and concern for the personal. It particularly shows with subjects from Hunter S. Thompson to Lennon and Yoko with baby with photos that are as ageless as the 1980 nude Lennon lovingly wrapped around a fully dressed Yoko. Annie was constantly delving into her life wholeheartedly, without reservation, to push the limits beyond what she’d done before and even what she herself had deemed not been okay before. Apparently rebellion can be against yourself and your own authority as well as any outside constraints to great advantage to oneself and others.
KC: Right, I agree, Annie’s rebellion is key. She was constantly pushing herself to reinvent the way we consider the iconic in our lives. I loved her work for Vanity Fair in 1991 where she photographed a nude and very pregnant Demi Moore for the cover. A pregnant naked woman on the cover of a national magazine! Also, in the 90s, she helped elevate the fashion model to goddess-like proportions with her pictures of Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, and other supermodels in a very gritty, noir visage. Not only did she present the giants amongst us, but she also became one herself by refusing to place a veil between herself and her work and her subjects.
JAS: I was recently watching the movie, Never Look Away, about an artist who grew up during Hitler’s regime in Germany that speaks to this issue. It opens with the artist as a boy being guided through an art show labeled Degenerative Art by a Nazi in 1937. The guide makes point after point about the moral badness of experimental art, in effect, condemning change and daring anyone in his audience to think differently. He judges art that changes every year as bad, any subject matter that falls short of glorifying soldiers as bad and elevates depictions of sufferers of mental illness with the beauty of painting as bad. ‘How does it elevate the soul’, he asks, and points his finger directly at clouds painted yellow, calling them odious depictions of sulfur. He claims these paintings to be flawed, demoting ‘seeing’ to illusion, mere ‘perceiving’, and, of course, morally bad. He accuses such artistic versions of reality of pestering society, questionably equivalent to criminal activity. Annie Liebovitz was born in 1949, only slightly over a decade after this show but now working in a culture where ‘badass’ qualifies her as an exemplary citizen, a major testimony to what a free woman can contribute to life and art. Annie would, no doubt, agree with the boy’s aunt who told that young boy when he caught her sitting in the nude playing the piano, “Never look away’ (giving the movie its title), adding as an explanation, “everything that’s true holds beauty in it.”
KC: And for Annie, her truth lies in showing us the beauty in our parallel universe; one full of potential, talent, creativity, the arts, and our popular obsessions. She shows us the world of our artists and activists, our thinkers and doers while maintaining the integrity of her own personal artistry.
JAS: I’d like to believe an artist like Annie Liebovitz is making visible ephemeral fascinations that guide us from age to age. Sticking to my theme of a modern woman who has come up from a Persephone Underground where she learned secrets of regeneration, Annie’s now inspiring us with her penetrating vision of beauty of what lies all around us, everyday, all the time, just for the ‘seeing’.