holding fast to the prism of her very soul


If Avedon provided the tools, it was Susan Sontag who gave Leibovitz a fresh sense of how she could use them as an autonomous artist. In retrospect, that a high-profile photographer of Leibovitz’s calibre should form an alliance with an intellectual as illustrious as Sontag is perfectly logical. After all, Walker Evans and James Agee formed an influential collaboration in the heyday of “documentary style” photography (Evans’s own term.) The turn of the 21st century twist is that Leibovitz and Sontag are women – and that all aspects of their personal, creative, and intellectual lives were intertwined during the fifteen-year period of their relationship.

Leibovitz’s knowing, “commercial” style stands out in a museum context. The best example is her witty color portrait of the Bush Administration, Cabinet Room (2001). A straight photograph and a public image, it’s also stupendously ironic. Bush, Rice, and the rest of them look like a band posing for a 1970s album cover. But the exhibition reveals that Leibovitz has mastered other modes. Her work shifts from creative service in the political and entertainment industries to photojournalism, as in Traces of the Massacre of Tutsi Schoolchildren and Villagers on a Bathroom Wall (1994), to tender family portraiture. Her soft-focus landscape photography of the American west and vast terrain in other locations includes a picture of Mt. Vesuvius – echoing Sontag’s novel The Volcano Lover.

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