Annie Leibovitz and the State of Photography

by Liz on April 20, 2009

Vicki Goldberg on Annie Leibovitz:

“She is the apex of the image culture that is so fixated on celebrity and she has catered to that. She has done it beautifully. But it’s a shabby culture in the end.”

I just saw Life Through the Lens this weekend and Vicki Goldberg’s quote jumped out at me. I hadn’t given much thought to Annie Leibovitz’s work as of late. Yeah, yeah, yeah, queen of photography, yadda yadda. The last images I’d seen in Vanity Fair were of the Judd Apatow squad, the images of the women of comedy and Miley Cyrus (over hyped, useless hoopla). The images have the Annie-stamp but leave me with nothing.

copyright Annie Leibovitz

copyright Annie Leibovitz

copyright Annie Leibovitz

copyright Annie Leibovitz

So, here’s the question I’m left with.

Is it our “shabby” culture that’s so influenced this generation of photography?  And how do we create and support work that says more? We’ve got every bell and whistle available but what images will you remember from the past 10 years? What images are shaping our visual language, our visual identity?

copyright Annie Leibovitz

copyright Annie Leibovitz

copyright Annie Leibovitz

copyright Annie Leibovitz

copyright Annie Leibovitz

copyright Annie Leibovitz

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Ian Aleksander Adams April 20, 2009 at 7:56 pm

It feels to me that there could have been some way for her to use her stature to push for interesting and beautiful things in her commercial work, instead of it seeming just as bad or sometimes worse than every other commercial/editorial work out there. In the past few years, it’s a lot more likely I’d cringe at her name than smile, and that’s sort of sad.

Josh April 20, 2009 at 9:14 pm

Point 1: I don’t feel our culture is as “shabby” as some might think. Today, in advertising, celebrity doesn’t have near the effect it did 10 years ago. Hell, maybe even 5 years ago. I believe it was in 2004 that Al Ries raised the flag, that the use of celebrity was losing it’s power, in his book “Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR”. Yet it keeps getting used (maybe overused). But why? I believe this culture is a lot less fixated on celebrity than most might believe. That is if all the advertising and marketing studies/results being done on this subject have even an ounce of legitimacy behind them.

Point 2: Perhaps it’s the mouthpieces, or the ones in control of the message being delivered, that ultimately have to support and press for the work that says more. Currently some seem to fall to the choice that is safe (albeit VERY expensive), but ultimately it will be up to them to take a chance on, elevate, and give power to the new voices waiting to speak up. And by stepping out this might actually begin to shape a new visual identity.

David Good April 21, 2009 at 4:12 am

I agree with you. I saw Annie’s show at the Portrait Gallery in London and I truly enjoyed the black and white candid shots of her family.
I think anything can be over processed, worked and become a popular commodity. The art scene in Toronto is getting a little like that as well. It is becoming less about the art and more about saying you are an artist. Or a friend of one.
Classics and true talents always float to the surface.

Liz April 21, 2009 at 6:46 am

Josh – interesting Point 1. But I wonder if it’s the over-saturation of celebrity that is causing the ‘loss of power’ in celebrity endorsed advertising? We no longer have a few heroes of basketball, football, fashion, photography, etc. We have legions. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing but I just wonder if we really will see the stand-out talent when we’ve got an ocean of work to swim through that used to be a pond.
As well, we are entering a new time – the end of excess, Obama, blogs and facebook may mean we have new opportunities to create a new visual identity. Extreme times call for bold choices. Hopefully a new visual world is on the horizon.

tony fouhse April 21, 2009 at 7:20 am

I kind of equate photography to music. You’ve got your pop stars who are sometimes manufactured by the powers that be. Some of these pop stars are really talented and their music touches millions and affects culture. Then you’ve got your “sub pop” kind of musicians. They are not beholden to studio systems and/or what’s in vogue. They reach far fewer people than the pop stars, but the pop stars usually are beholden to the sub pop folks in that they let them do the research and development, then rip them off.

Our culture can be, and usually is, shabby. That’s because you make more money by mining a big fat vein than you do by chipping away at some little thing that is just about only important to you.

I guess you have to decide where you want to look, what you want to mine.


Rudy Archuleta April 21, 2009 at 8:16 am

It is hard to think of what images are shaping our visual identity because there are a million more images out there. We live in a culture (be it shabby or not) bombarded visually. There certainly are photographers creating powerful imagery but what venues are giving voice to those who challenge our eyes, heart, and mind? With very few exception it certainly is not the editorial page. So I think the big question is WHERE will we find our heroes? The web, the gallery, the printed page? They are out there but in any case there will be a lot of weeding out.

Raymond Adams May 3, 2009 at 10:01 am

Well put, Rudy.
There are so many talented artists creating work, and so many different visual styles, that I don’t think the problem is any lack of imagery, it’s a matter of the major outlets (be they advertisers, magazines, galleries, or museums) deciding to showcase something outside the norm.
As for Annie, she is undoubtedly a master of her craft, and she has raised the bar for everyone. She hasn’t shown us anything particularly different in a while, but let’s not take anything away from what she has given to the industry.

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