When I learned that Annie Leibovitz came out with a new book and that it had pictures of her partner, the writer Susan Sontag, and her father after both had died I thought it sounded grim. For starters, I don't much like seeing bodies at wakes. To capture it in pics for all posterity seemed distasteful at the very least. But I always admired her work and her judgment. So when I found out she was going to speak locally, at the D.C. bookstore, "Politics and Prose," I had to go and hopefully get an answer as to why she took them and chose to publish them in "A Photographer's Life, 1990-2005." Moreover, I knew I'd finally get to see the pictures that reviewers were trying so hard NOT to talk about.
What a turnout. When I arrived more than an hour prior to the event, the 200 chairs were already filled in the tiny bookstore/coffeehouse and floor space for standing was limited. I managed to find a small plot up front and sat on the carpet. While waiting, I entertained myself by answering the questions of some cute over-60 ladies on how to work their digital cameras, how to turn the flash on, how to take it off, etc. I wondered if many knew what they were in for. Sure, they knew the artist took stunning portraits of celebrities, but did they know they would be getting to know the real Leibovitz. Why she took pictures of dead people she loved and put them in a book. I admit I was a woman obsessed. But the concept mesmerized me.
I sensed intuitively that this book was different from many of Leibovitz's, something more personal and invasive. For starters, there were nudes of the photographer herself, done beautifully.
From my space, I had to twist my neck a bit to see the screen which undoubtedly would display her photos. Then, like a miracle, one of the ladies I was helping offered to give me the seat she was saving for a friend who was unable to make it. As I happily settled in, the store announced that they weren't letting anybody else in. They were filled to capacity.
Now I have met mayors, a governor or two and even a U.S. president but I felt so excited for this event - in an intuitive way like I was about to be part of something rare and special and be inspired in a way that I hadn't in a long time.
While waiting, I flipped through Leibovitz's gigantic tome, so heavy they have to charge $75 for it. I turned the pages gingerly, careful not to touch the images themselves. Most of the personal work of her mother, father, sister, children and Sontag, was in black and white. That lent a certain dignity to it all since they were real people not stylized celebrities. The truth was there raw "in black and white" as they say. Most of the celebrity shots were in color. Maybe they needed color to be more genuine.
So about 6:55 p.m., in walked Leibovitz, unassuming, slight, quiet. She was dressed head to toe Manhattan chic. Black V-neck sweater, layered over a grey tee, black pants, rimmed glasses. She was slimmer than I imaged and seemed shyer.
Lucky for us, she would read selections from the intro in her book while showing slides on the wall. It took her a while to get comfortable. She needed a stool so she could see the screen. They 86'ed the obtrusive podium set up for her. She almost sat on the floor. Finally, they found her a chair so she could begin. I was hoping my answer would be on its way.
Just as she began, though, I flipped to the Sontag pics taken after she died from cancer. They were in color. Printed small . . . in a contact sheet style . . . in a series. The 71-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning author looked peaceful and stunning. It showed her lying on a bier, wearing makeup and a favorite dress she bought in Milan. I imagined what it would be like to be with Sontag as she lay there motionless. To spend time with her in that way, taking some time to say goodbye and pose her for her last photo?
I thought about this too as I saw photos of Leibovitz's dead father, joined by his wife and daughter in his bed. I began to understand. It seemed to me like the most honest thing you could do and most courageous. Capturing the moment most feared by us. To spend time with someone you love in the moment you dread. Not rushing their passing. Experiencing the moment and then immortalizing it with the camera. Birth is a photo-significant moment. Why not death?
To take the day to say goodbye seems like a luxury to me now. The photos are not grim. You already had a lifetime of hellos with the person. Goodbye deserves some time too.
(For more, see imaginginfo.com's full news account of the event under this week's online exclusives)
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