What's in a Word? Annie Leibovitz Has a New Book and a New Exhibit of Photography Chronicling the Intimate Moments of Her Life, Including a 15-Year Relationship with Her "Friend" Susan Sontag

By Rollyson, Carl | The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine), November 21, 2006 | Go to article overview

What's in a Word? Annie Leibovitz Has a New Book and a New Exhibit of Photography Chronicling the Intimate Moments of Her Life, Including a 15-Year Relationship with Her "Friend" Susan Sontag


Rollyson, Carl, The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)


"I don't have two lives. This is one life, and the personal pictures and the assignment work are all part of it," Annie Leibovitz writes in the introduction to A Photographer's Life: 1990-2005. This new work is "the closest thing to who I am that I've ever done," she concludes.

Certainly this is the famous photographer's most important work of self-revelation. Not only does she include intimate family photographs and her celebrated personality portraits of public figures ranging from Colin Powell to Demi Moore, she also, for the first time, publishes endearing and disquieting photographs of her "friend," Susan Sontag. These shots show, for example, the writer lounging on a paper-strewn bed with a typewriter on a table nearby; the writer in a hospital bed, enduring the agony of chemotherapy; and, finally, the writer lying dead, bruised and bloated after her last bout with cancer.

This is not a book I ever expected Leibovitz to produce. While working on Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon, which I cowrote with my wife, Lisa Paddock, countless interviewees told us the Sontag-Leibovitz relationship was so taboo they expected us to be sued for mentioning it. And we did receive threatening letters and calls from attorneys acting on Sontag's behalf--although, in the end, no legal proceedings ensued. In fact, when the biography became a news item in The New York Observer, The New York Times, and other publications, Sontag began to recount for interviewers her sexual affairs--with women and men, although she did not name names.

Even more reticent than Sontag, Leibovitz has been downright hostile when questioned about her sexuality and her relationship with Sontag. Yet the November issue of Vanity Fair includes Sontag's photo of a nude, pregnant Leibovitz and a brief commentary mentioning that Leibovitz and Sontag became "partners" in the late '80s. "Partners" is, believe it or not, a step forward for Leibovitz--and nothing about Leibovitz appears in Vanity Fair without her say-so. I know, because she killed an article the magazine was planning to do on our book. A letter from a Vanity Fair editor also stated that without Sontag's cooperation such an article could not be published.

That scare quotes still need to be wrapped around "friend" to refer to the Sontag-Leibovitz liaison exposes the inadequacy of Leibovitz's latest book. If life and work are one, what are connections between family, work, and friendship--not to mention the role love plays in Leibovitz's biography and photography?

Both Leibovitz's text and her photographs compartmentalize. If Sontag ever met Leibovitz's family, the photographs do not show it, and Leibovitz's words do not acknowledge any such encounters. If Sontag, a celebrity herself, had any dealings with Leibovitz's assigned subjects (Sontag certainly knew some of them), again, the photographs and text do not say. As seemingly candid as this book is, the Sontag of On Photography would have cast a skeptical eye on it, noting that photographs conceal as much as they reveal.

Indeed, Leibovitz's introduction and the interviews she has orchestrated to help launch her book are an exercise in closeting. Although Leibovitz and Sontag shared homes together in New York and Paris, traveled the world together, and were an item for 15 years in New York City, the price for access to her presence and her photographs is pussyfooting profiles in Newsweek, The New York Times, and The [London] Guardian.

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