Why Annie Leibovitz Is Wrong About the State of Photography


A reporter at the Cannes Lions Festival, surely seeking a quotable moment, asked Annie Leibovitz yesterday to describe the state of her profession. The resulting video is actually low on zingers, but even if you acknowledge her accomplishments and reputation (and set aside those stories about how, despite her reputation, she’s actually had a difficult time selling her work), there’s still ample reason to believe that Ms. Leibovitz no longer knows what she’s talking about.

“I think that those of us who are photographers, the difference between us and everyone else is we take what we do very seriously,” she offered. “In this day and age, of things moving so, so fast, we still long for things to stop. And we love the still image. We still, as a society, love the still image, and you know, any time there’s some, God forbid, horrible disaster, or terrible moment, we remember the stills.”

On their own, both of these points seem valid.

It’s fair to say, first of all, that picture-taking used to be an expensive, dignified process, and that most photographers, understandably, long for that kind of respect. More people share more photographs with one another than ever before, and this has ostensibly hurt the dignity of a real art form, whose ancestor, painting, invariably required the careful training of experts in order to be done well. In short: professionalism = good.

Her second point, that the still image continues to be a powerful medium, is also hard to argue with. In the last year, still images — of a boy on a bike facing Moscow’s riot police, or the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing — succeeded in capturing and defining how the public felt about major moments in history as they took place. Still images = also good.

Photo credit: Julia Ioffe

[via The New Yorker ]

Security camera footage of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects

Leibovitz’s observation seems to fall apart, however, when these two points are placed side by side. Even if you love photography done by careful professionals who know what they’re doing, it’s hard to shake off the notion that pictures non-professionals take can have just as much power. This is certainly true in the above examples: the pictures of the Tsarnaev brothers came from security cameras, and Julia Ioffe snapped her shot of the boy on the bike hastily, with her phone, while reporting on the protests during Putin’s inauguration for The New Yorker.

In the past year, professional photographers — especially in the news media — have by all means accomplished great things. Many cite Pablo Martinez Monsivais’s AP photo of Obama embracing a victim of Hurricane Sandy as instrumental to the president’s successful re-election. But I doubt photographers of Leibovitz’s ilk could be placed in the same category.

Whereas Leibovitz’s reputation has rested on her cover shoots — specifically, her meticulously arranged portraits of celebrities — the rest of the world has gone in a different direction. Whether we like it or not, we now look at photographs under the influence of hyper-sharing, and tend to appreciate them the most if they at least appear to be spontaneous, uncontrived, and unrehearsed.

In this environment, Leibovitz’s ostensibly “racy” and “original” shoot of Miley Cyrus was both irresponsible and, as Hamilton Nolan wrote in Gawker, boring. The most memorable facet of her portrait of Queen Elizabeth was that neither sitter not portraitist got along, and her campy approach to Hurricane Sandy in Vogue was less than inspiring. Way less. If Annie Leibovitz can no longer provide a coherent statement on the state of her profession, that’s probably because she’s increasingly becoming irrelevant to it.