2013-02-14 / Opinion

Holding the mirror up to nature

Let me pare down the immense biography of Annie Liebovitz by reporting three recent facts.

Ms. Liebovitz, as you know, is the celebrated 63-year-old photographer of stars and products such as the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, the Whoopi Goldbergs and the Demi Moores, the George Clooneys and Lance Armstrongs and Johnny Depps, or (most recently) the Stella Artois beers.

First fact: she has placed her ivy-covered home and studio up for sale. Any of us can have it, dominating a comfortable corner in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, a New York City neighborhood, merely by laying down $33 million.

Second, Ms. Liebovitz recently sold 37 photographs of the famous or almost famous to the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach. Any of us can see them merely by driving there post haste, whether we have to travel from the next town over or the next coast over — from Palm Beach Gardens or Port Charlotte.

To that sale she added two more images as gifts, bringing to 39 the number now on display at the Norton through June 9.

And third, two Florida Weekly colleagues joined Ms. Liebovitz last month to talk about her art. One of them, a friend of mine, told me that Ms. Liebovitz hit the mark in a George W. Bush photo she once made — Mr. Bush with his family, or perhaps h with

Dl his first-term cabinet, including Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell.

“She said regardless of where you fall oon pp the political divide, everyone loved this picture, because they saw in it what they projected onto it,” my friend noted.

She has experienced such a phenomenon herself, with one uncharacteristic exception: not everybody always loves what she writes. Holding a mirror up to nature, after all, can sometimes show you something you might not want to see.

My friend may feel that critical reactions to some stories are also the result of the Liebovitz principle: Observers take from art what they bring to it. They see what they want to see.

“When you read (a good) story,” she explained to me, “you’re really having a conversation with yourself. You take away whatever you project onto it.”

Just as when you view the portrait of Bush and company.

It’s a contemporary notion, at least put that way, but it has its antecedents in classical western philosophy. The old idea of art is this: to be good, it must entertain and educate. Coincidentally, its witnesses may come to understand something they already know — they see it revealed.

Then they can say, So that’s love (Shakespeare’s Sonnet 114). So that’s evil (Robert Hilliard’s novel, “Phillipa”). So that’s despair (Joan Didion’s memoir, “Blue Nights”).

All that’s a little different than merely seeing what you want to see. And it doesn’t mean the thing seen has to be beautiful, either. That is, unless you think of beauty the way Thomas Aquinas did, not merely as pretty, but as “id quod visum placet.” Beauty is that which, when seen, pleases.

Taken that way — taken as objects that carry no moral imperative — Ms. Liebovitz’s photos are beautiful, if empty. Many of her Norton subjects sit at the center of the universe working on their fame-tans in the bright rays of her camera — Mikhail Baryshnikov and Mark Morris. Tom Cruise, Andy Warhol and Leonardo DiCaprio with a swan curled around his neck. Even the pre-diet Rev. Al Sharpton, enthroned in the PrimaDonna Beauty Care Center in Brooklyn with a hairdryer riding his head like a royal space helmet.

Beautiful all, and sometimes disturbing — though not as disturbing as her most famous photo, the Rolling Stone Magazine shot of a tastefully naked John Lennon lying on his side to embrace the reclining, fully-clothed Yoko Ono.

Ms. Liebovitz took that one on the afternoon of Dec. 8, 1980. Ms. Ono wore black for the shot, and the result reflected the photographer’s ability to create confections that appeal like narcotics to an American palate addicted to carnival stardom.

In no other entertainment photo does the glitter of fame become so deeply and permanently enshrined by the concrete of sudden martyrdom. Only a few hours later, John Lennon walked toward his apartment on the west side of Central Park and was shot and killed by a carnival stardom addict.

What all of that does for Ms. Liebovitz — who is now, in the tradition of Andy Warhol, as famous as her subjects — is create great wealth, apparently.

It doesn’t hurt that what we know of her is exotic, as well. She always wears black. She was the longtime lover and partner (she has said) of the late razor-tongued critic and writer, Susan Sontag. She can actually get her subjects to do these things willingly: lay in a bath of milk (Whoopi Goldberg) or let her shoot what she sees when she catches them sitting in a women’s beauty parlor (Al Sharpton).

More impressively to me, she can obscure the line between art that aims to reveal what’s real or true, and art that uses the techniques and artistry of such revelation — in painting, writing or photography, for example — to make you reach into your wallet and produce a lot of real cash, and never mind any other realities.

Beer commercials. Beauty-product commercials. Clothing commercials. The truth of that artistry is economic. Do people who sit around drinking Stella Artois really look or behave like the models in Ms. Liebovitz’s “Stella Artois Timeless Beauty Campaign” shoot — the perfect woman perched invitingly atop the perfect man’s piano in a world without fear or flaw?

Is that art? Is that even honorable? What would an old rocker like Neil Young, the conscience of Ms. Liebovitz’s generation, say?

He’d say this, and did: “Ain’t singin’ for Pepsi/Ain’t singin’ for Coke… Ain’t singin’ for Miller/ Ain’t singin’ for Bud… I got the real thing, baby….”

I wanted the real thing, too, so I walked into (not the Norton) a bar and ordered a glass of Stella the other day. When I looked in the mirror behind a wall of bottles, some old bald fool was looking back with a big carnival grin on his face.

It was sobering, I tell you. ¦

Return to top