The Other Annie Leibovitz
by Steve Davis
As a young teenager in the early 1970's, I was interested in two things besides girls -- photography and rock music. Having a tin ear and proving too lazy to practice, that left me with photography -- a pursuit informed by family snapshot photography, classic Adams type landscapes, and increasingly by images celebrating rock stars, and a hip "counter culture" of which I was painfully ignorant. Most of these images were black and whites from Rolling Stone Magazine.
Annie Leibovitz began honing her craft at Rolling Stone at about that time. Her early photography proved to be exceptionally influential to me. Her images, like her subjects seemed mystical -- ambiguous and incomplete by design. Definitive clarity, obvious and accessible visual statements were more traits of an authoritarian culture, and not of Rolling Stone's or early Leibovitz. Her pictures were grounded in a grammar of grainy 35mm Tri-X, sometimes exposed properly, sometimes not; sometimes in focus, sometimes not so much. (I can still experience the smell of film and fixer whenever I lay eyes on those early pictures, and that alone makes me smile).
The best of her early portraiture is in my opinion, as good as her later, more polished and refined examples. The 1976 Brian Wilson standing on the beach in his bathrobe shows a man walking out of both surf and Bible. The 1970 John Lennon portrait shows a man both regal and common. Mick Jagger standing in a hospital elevator, patient and mystic -- examples of the photographer making pictures inviting contradiction and open-ended interpretations. If there was a clear message or overarching statement to Leibovitz's pre-1980's work, it is that there is no clear message or overarching statement to be had. Mystery and grace go hand in hand with berserk fans, drugged out rock stars and political corruption.
That kind of sucked. One of us was clearly wrong about the strength of that early work. It seemed unlikely that it could be Annie, or even Neal for that matter. What does it mean to base your entire life plan on bad work? Nothing, really. Even Slavin recanted his denouncement on the following day. I realized that none of that really matters. You see what you see.
Her later flashier, classier, hyper-real fantasy portraits for Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and the advertising industry will eclipse the kind of work I mention here, probably justifiably so. But seeing pictures made by one person, sans directors, makeup artists, stylists, assistants or a script makes me remember why I picked up a camera.