New York

Annie Liebovitz

There is something wanly funny about entering a gallery full of Annie Liebovitz photographs—photographs I’ve already seen in Vanity Fair or in American Express ads—that oddly reaffirms that usually irrelevant distinction between art and photography. Throughout the ’80s, much high-profile “art” photography seemed transfixed by commerce; leavened with a healthy dose of hypocrisy, however, it at least pretended that this relationship was in some way specular or critical. Liebovitz’s photographs are simply commerce; as Ingrid Sischy has recently written in the introduction to the monograph Photographs: Annie Liebovitz 1970–1990: “Her story is not about a struggle to be recognized, nor does it reflect alienation from commerce.” True, too true. Maybe The New Republic was even closer to the heart of the matter when, in a recent parody of Vanity Fair, it christened our photographer Annie Letsberitch.

Liebovitz doesn’t choose subjects that appeal to her own particular vision or sensibility; she’s just well paid to photograph famous people of the minute. Liebovitz wallows in fame with unseemly ardor. Her photographs remind me powerfully of the TV show Entertainment Tonight; like John Tesh and Mary Hart, Liebovitz’s photojournalistic career is based on hounding people who positively want to be hounded. There is no quality of introspection or analysis either on the part of the photographer, her subjects, or, I would guess, the people who claim to enjoy her work.

Liebovitz is routinely credited with seeing into the heart of American popular culture (arguably the only culture America possesses) with her hipster lens. Again, Sischy: “It was years before I put her name to a picture that had made an impression on me. But thinking back on the images that have represented popular culture for the past 20 years, it’s remarkable how many pictures that seemed to hit the nail on the head and capture the times turn out to have come from her cameras.” What’s really remarkable is how utterly banal and lacking in resonance those images are. Packaging personas in the most clichéd wrappings, Liebovitz cannot resist hackneyed and prosaic effects: he-man playwright Sam Shephard decked out in chaps with horse and bridle; Keith Haring by Keith Haring, au naturel; fossilized bad boy Dennis Hopper astride his hog; windswept intellectual Susan Sontag on a wintry Hamptons beach. My favorite is the picture of Whoopi Goldberg immersed in a bath of milk, perhaps a literalization of the racist epithet “a fly in the milk.”

Liebovitz’s photographs haven’t even a whiff of psychological penetration. As her pictures are essentially no more than advertisements, her subjects are never anything other than what you already expect them to be. When Robert Mapplethorpe photographed famous people, he usually had the sense to strip them of their accoutrements; that way, staring into the luminous blankness of his subjects’ faces, you could intuit a psychology that wasn’t necessarily there on the surface. Liebovitz only believes in the accoutrements, the setup, the posing. What all of her photographs share is a theatricalization of gesture devoid of a lively sense of theater. Indeed, she manages to take the fun out of vulgarity.

David Rimanelli