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Annie Leibovitz Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery
Annie Leibovitz: lessons in life and love
Annie Leibovitz's photographs capture the shimmering glamour of celebrity – and all the joy and pain of family life. She talks to Sarah Crompton

n the white walls of the National Portrait Gallery, a conversation is taking place. Portraits of people so famous that they don't even need a caption to tell you their names – President Bush, Nicole Kidman, Leonardo DiCaprio – are set alongside photographs of less familiar faces and images. Here, mainly in black and white, are the photographer's parents on the beach, her lover surrounded by books, her children being born, her father dying.

This is Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer's Life, and the juxtapositions are striking. A photograph of her partner, the writer Susan Sontag, lying inert on a stretcher near the end of her final illness, contrasts with one of Scarlett Johansson, in all her lush, youthful glory. A triptych of her father's death is balanced by images from the birth (to a surrogate mother) of her twins Susan and Samuelle, now three. Another photograph shows Sontag looking in questioning wonder at the swaddled form of Sarah, the daughter (now seven) that Leibovitz gave birth to at the age of 51. It hangs next to glossy shots of the Star Wars robots. The contrasts speak; you are in the middle of a life lived, as well as a career pursued.

When the photographer herself walks into the exhibition, that sense of lively intelligence is heightened. Annie Leibovitz, now 59, is taller, slimmer and more attractive than I had imagined; the lines that make her face look severe in photographs lighten in the flesh, and there is an unexpected flicker of emotion close to the surface as she talks.

For her, this exhibition and the book that accompanies it, mark an end of something. 'Something happened to me after I did this work,' she says. 'You get to this point where you are working and working, and you don't know what you are doing or why you are doing it, and then suddenly you get to that place where you go…'

She pauses, and draws out the next word: 'Oh, I get it. When I did this volume, I felt I had sort of got there in some way. This is what I always thought I wanted to do.' She started to put it together after Sontag's death in 2004, when she began to sort out photographs for a memorial booklet. Its scope more or less spans their 15 years together from a glamorous pose in a car in Mexico to the final shocking image of Sontag laid out in death, ravaged by blood cancer.

Sontag's son, David Rieff, was appalled by Leibovitz's decision to display these searing photographs of his mother. But, seen in the context of earlier portraits, including one in which she lies across a bed covered in sheets like a Modigliani beauty, they seem like the final notes in a love song.

'It is a love story,' Leibovitz agrees. 'After she died, I had such a difficult time because it was such a bad death, and it was awkward with her son. I didn't know what I did have with Susan. And looking through the pictures I could piece together my life with her. It isn't the life because the life was bigger and more complicated than the pictures. But how lucky I was to find these pictures and basically to see what was there. It was a kind of evidence or proof of our life.'

Her voice fades away and she looks down as she speaks. In repose, her hands seem to fall into the shape of an imaginary camera. Sontag's death and that of her father – which occurred within weeks of each other – make the show full of sadness. But it also talks of love and continuity. Scattered throughout are portraits of her family, of her mother, father and five siblings, and of their children. 'It was dysfunctional like every family, but the idea that you were loved came through.'

Her mother died a year ago, and Leibovitz has arrived in London after a gathering at the unveiling of the headstone on her parents' grave. 'We were all together, so it was a wonderful moment,' she says quietly. Her mother's death was, she says, a 'really beautiful death', with her family gathered around her.

As with her father, she took photographs.Did her siblings not mind? 'They were concerned originally,' she says. 'But they all sort of know me. I am a photographer. They let it happen. No one in our family tells anyone else what they should be doing.'

Ironically for someone so defined by her profession, Leibovitz set out to be an art teacher. But she found painting isolating, and gravitated towards photography: 'It was much more integrating.'

She fell into taking pictures for Rolling Stone magazine and gradually, over a 35-year career, has become probably the most famous celebrity portraitist in the world. Yet she describes herself as a 'reluctant director' and says: 'I feel like I am more a conceptual artist who is using photography.'

Her Vanity Fair portraits of the Queen are on display on the way into the show and Leibovitz is concerned that remarks she made about the shoot have been misunderstood. 'I talked mostly about how great she was and how I admired her. I don't like the Royal family to think I am going around complaining about them.'

Her attitude towards her famous subjects seems collusive rather than confrontational: 'You place people and they are looking for you to place them. But all the work that you do is about being ready for those moments when things unfold without you.'

Leibovitz is sometimes criticised for the lack of psychological insight in her portraits. But, in the private work and the best of the commissions, there is no apparent distinction between what she sees and what she photographs. The experience and the frame of the photograph are one.

That complete identification of herself with her work is, she says, how she once perceived life. All successful people have to be obsessed, and she undoubtedly was. 'I had a camera with me the whole time. It was a big effort to put the camera down and start to have a life. I think Susan began that process, and my children have continued it.'

It is in this sense that this show represents a culmination. 'I am much more relaxed about everything now,' she says. 'I don't feel the driving need to do it all the time particularly with my children, which is frustrating, because I really want to continue the tradition of taking pictures as often as I can. But I would rather be with them. It is kind of a little bit like a block right now. Maybe I am just taking a psychological break and hoping it is going to pick back up.'

She speaks analytically, thoughtfully, without regret. Listening to her talk about her photographs it is clear she loves what she does. But she adds: 'I didn't want to go through life totally looking through a camera. It's not like you stop seeing. You always see pictures. You just let a lot of them go by.' 'Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer's Life, 1990-2005' is at the National Portrait Gallery, London WC2, until Feb 1, 2009.

Image and text by the

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