A Complete Picture

Photographer Annie Leibovitz in her Greenwich Village studio
The superstar photographer in her studio. The combination of popular and personal imagery in her new book is "the closest thing to who I am that I've ever done." (Helayne Seidman for The Washington Post)
By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 19, 2006


Annie Leibovitz is sitting in her Greenwich Village studio, watching her life flash before her eyes.

Fifteen years of it, to be precise, the part she's collected in her new book, "A Photographer's Life: 1990-2005," whose 472 pages her visitor is flipping through now. It's a startling compilation, including as it does both previously unseen images of her family and her companion, Susan Sontag -- who died in December 2004, just weeks before Leibovitz's father -- and the trademark portraits that shout out to celebrity worshipers from the pages of Vanity Fair.

Different planets? Not to the photographer. Her book title says "life," not "lives." Yet the private and the public work -- and the way Leibovitz talks about them -- can feel shockingly at odds.

Take this close-up of a rippling, naked torso: It's Sylvester Stallone's. "I like him better without his head," she says, explaining the simple Hollywood concept behind the 1993 shot. "He was selling his body."

Now take the nude on white sheets, pillow partially covering her chest, which was shot the following year. This is Sontag, who'd had a radical mastectomy during her first bout with cancer. "I think she felt like she wasn't beautiful -- and I thought she was beautiful," Leibovitz says.

She calls the photograph "one way to show my love."

Flip, flip, flip. More pages turn.

Here's an extended family cavorting at the beach; an intimate moment in a Venetian hotel; a pregnant actress, naked save for the humongous jewels with which she has chosen to ornament her hand and ear. Here are birth and death, artifice and performance, love and loss -- everyday human drama juxtaposed with the theatrical excess that celebrity culture demands.

Annie Leibovitz's images range from intensity to celebrity. Brad Pitt is pictured.
Annie Leibovitz's images range from intensity to celebrity. Brad Pitt is pictured. (Annie Leibovitz/Courtesy of Vanity Fair)
Leibovitz doesn't much like the term "celebrity," at least when applied to her day job. She calls herself a portrait photographer, which at least sounds dignified, and talks about the blend of "assignment work" and "personal work" that makes up the new book. Both elements were needed, she says, because "I don't think they were strong enough without the other."

Still, there's no doubt which genre she thinks is the most important right now.

As she told the overflow crowd crammed into Northwest Washington's Politics and Prose bookstore on Monday, putting the book together helped her grieve. She choked up momentarily as she read the last line from her introduction:

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