Artist Walk: Annie Leibovitz

After decades of taking iconic images of mega-celebrities, Annie Leibovitz has now reached that same level of superstardom herself—even being named a “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress.

She is currently the subject of a major exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, “Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life, 1990-2005,” on view through Jan. 21, 2007. The exhibition coincides with the publication of Leibovitz’s new book of the same title.

On the day before the show opened to the public, we joined a tangle of clamoring camera crews, photographers and journalists from around the world (a feisty bunch whom Leibovitz more than once had to ask to give her some breathing room) for a tour of the exhibition, which features more than 200 photographs, encompassing both images made on assignment for major magazines—and far more personal shots of her private life.

“I don't have two lives,” Leibovitz said. “This is one life, and the personal pictures and the assignment work are all part of it.”

Early on in the tour, Leibovitz explained the decision-making process behind the unusual way the images in the exhibition are displayed. While determining which images to include in her book, Leibovitz pinned the photographs to a wall in her upstate New York barn. The exhibition retains this informal, somewhat haphazard look.

“I built one wall of my assignment work and one wall of my personal work,” Leibovitz said. “You’re seeing it just as it was in the barn.”

In addition to images of public figures such as George W. Bush, Nelson Mandela, Demi Moore and Nicole Kidman, the show offers an extremely intimate glimpse into Leibovitz’s life on the other side of the lens, including images that deal with the births of her three children and the deaths of both her father and of her companion, the writer Susan Sontag.

Leibovitz said including such personal work was a natural response to losing her father and Sontag. “I don’t know if I would have looked at [these personal images as something to exhibit] if Susan or my father wouldn’t have died,” she said.

She paused in front of one of the images we’re more accustomed to seeing from Leibovitz—a portrait of the flamboyant performance artist Leigh Bowery, covered from head to toe in black vinyl. Leibovitz said she had wanted to photograph Bowery nude, but he had insisted on the black outfit.

“He was the (nude) subject of a lot of Lucian Freud paintings, and it was really frustrating for me because I was used to seeing him nude,” she said.

In contrast, she did get to photograph Cindy Crawford in the buff (posing as Eve with a snake around her neck). “When you work with one of the great models of our time, what better way to portray her than without clothes,” she said. “Everyone else is putting clothes on her.”

Leibovitz also commented on her famously controversial image of a naked, pregnant Moore (which became a Vanity Fair cover): “We didn’t expect all the tension the picture actually caused.”

Other parts of the exhibition hint at humor: A photograph of President Bush, Condoleezza Rice and other members of the administration is placed next to one of Michael Moore and his entourage, which in turn hangs near photos of Star Wars robots.

There also are photographs that couldn’t be further from the glossy world of presidents and celebrities, including one image showing a blood-smeared bike, taken on an assignment to cover the siege of Sarajevo in the early 1990s. “[Susan] moved me and made me want to go [to Sarajevo], so I went two or three times,” Leibovitz said. “I was in a war zone, and death happened. Right in front of me a mortar hit a young boy on a bicycle.”

The exhibition ends in a roomful of landscapes, taken in the American West and the Jordanian desert, that are larger than anything else in the show. “I like the way the landscapes show that we’re all just part of the world,” Leibovitz said.

But the true heart of the exhibition—and Leibovitz’s talk—were the photographs of the people she loves.

“It was like being on an archaeological dig,” Leibovitz said of sifting through personal photos for the book. She stopped near an image of Sontag’s typewriter, circa 1992. “I was sort of brought to tears with this one,” Leibovitz said, explaining that when she looked at the photograph through a magnifying glass, she was able to read the text on the paper in the typewriter: “So, this is dying…” the last line of the page read.

Another image, one that comes close to being Leibovitz’s favorite, she said, shows her mother in her 70s. She said the photograph represents a pivotal moment when her mother had to grapple with aging and vulnerability. “It was so successful for me on so many levels,” Leibovitz said of the piece.

She added that photographing her loved ones is ultimately more rewarding than creating portraits of stars. “It doesn’t necessarily get easier the more you know someone,” she said. “But it’s the strongest work because those are the people who know you and put up with you and let you into their lives. Hence the good work; hence the best work.”