Review: Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life 1990-2005 (MCA)

Dear level 3 of the MCA,
My goodness – the art you must have seen in recent times! From having your walls covered with the tantalizing polka-dots of the infamous sixties icon, Kusama, for her retrospective Yayoi Kusama: Mirrored Years, to showcasing Olegas Truchanas’ breathtaking photographs of Tasmania’s Lake Pedder pre-damming for In the Balance: Art for a Changing World, you have been a truly exuberant level of the gallery. However, I am writing to congratulate you on your most recent exhibition, Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life 1990-2005. Reading more like a contemplative diary entry than a cumulative retrospective, I found the exhibition to be insightful not primarily of Leibovitz’s body of work but of, as the title promises, her life.

Although donned with an array of celebrities, politicans and royalty worthy of a hearty sigh, the true shining stars of the exhibition are Leibovitz’s parents and her late partner, the noted American author, Susan Sontag. From seeing Sontag softly bathed in sunlight, sprawled on the couch; across the breakfast table with piled up room-service; receiving chemotherapy; and finally on her deathbed, the lens that exists between subject and artist, artist and audience, dissolves as Leibovitz allows us to enter her life and hence adopt the affections that were and are, hers. By the final room of the exhibition, the large and stately portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, glowing with Leibovitz’s famous use of light as if it were almost on fire, ironically does not hold all the majesty. What is most captivating is the final small wooden framed collage of the late Sontag prepared for cremation – it were as if the entire exhibition, reading like Leibovitz’s attempt to grasp, reflect and gain a sense of reconciled closure with her past, were leading up to this small picture which acts as both a sad and beautiful sign-off, as if Leibovitz were trying to say goodbye to a most eventful and defining chapter of her life.

The absence of many of Leibovitz’s most well known works, namely those circa 1970’s Rolling Stone magazine, and the inclusion of simply framed treasured moments, is reminiscent of the dedication of her 2008 book At Work, “To my family. My first subjects.” This reminds us that this is not an exhibition of Leibovitz’s greatest hits but an insight into “A Photographer’s Life” and thoughts behind the lens – as she states in the opening curatorial text, “I don’t have two lives, this is one life and the personal pictures and the assignment work are all part of it.” For a noted icon of the celebrity media context, Leibovitz’s exhibition is portrayed as contrastingly poetic and, perhaps with intention to deter recent controversy surrounding the Art Capital Group Inc. v. Leibovitz law suite, austere. It is sadly undoubtable that many will approach this exhibition with preformed prejudice formed under the umbrella terms of celebrity, commercialism and debt – a curiosity which the MCA will greatly benefit from with the coming Summer season – however such audiences put themselves up for disappointment as they will find themselves face to face with a real human being, not an ego up for criticism.

In contrast to the medium-wise highly diverse exhibitions level 3 of the MCA has previously held, Leibovitz’s, made up solely of photographs, runs the risk of becoming tedious. However diversity in size, colour, subject and framing directs audiences to actively move inward to inspect details and vice versa to grasp enormity. The exhibition is chronologically organised, however reads as if sectioned off by trains of thought. With inclusion of her photojournalistic work in Sarajevo and landscape photography of Monument Valley, Leibovitz opens our eyes to work and experiences which although have not defined her image in the media, have most importantly defined her life. By reading her quotes on walls which coincide with her photos, we are able to access Leibovitz’s concern not with audience expectations but her comparison to other photographers “…I had booked a helicopter, but I felt guilty because it seemed like cheating. At the end of the very last day, I told myself that Ansel Adams would have rented a helicopter.”

In regards to set-up the exhibition reads like a novel with Leibovitz as the omniscient narrator – giving enough insight, however leaving enough room, for audiences to be recipient of climaxes, subplots and their own speculation. In contrast to the AGNSW’s summer-exhibition choice of entombed warriors for The First Emperor, and the NGA’s Ballet Russes, both rather historic in their appeal, the MCA’s Annie Leibovitz: A Photogrpaher’s Life 1990-2005 is intriguing on levels more close to home and slightly more accessible. Whether going to celebrity-spot, technique-critique or stroll in the air-conditioning on a hot summer’s afternoon, the main downfall of the exhibition is the price tag. Often, an exhibition’s success can be observed by the amount of times a person returns to it however with up to a $15 entrance fee, a loyal summer crowd may be hard to gain.

Annie Leibovitz: A Photogrpaher’s Life 1990-2005 is not an exhibition about her most famous, successful and talented works but a reflection on her life, choices and experiences. Ideally, audiences would not go to see celebrities, nor would they to Susan Sontag. For the most successful viewing, I suggest not even going to see Annie Leibovitz herself or her work, but going to see the world – as seen through Leibovitz’s eyes.

Annie Leibovitz: A Photogrpaher’s Life 1990-2005 
The Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Australia
Adults $15 / Concession $10 / Children under 12 Free / Family $40