A lot, apparently.
In his Photography After Frank , most of Gefter’s essays are complementary profiles of a variety of photographers, some famous, some not so much. But, when it comes to his review of Leibovitz’s own book, A Photographer’s Life, the accolades disappear.
Actually, I’m kind of on Gefter’s side. I’ve always been ambivalent about Leibovitz. I feel the same way about her that I do about most National Geographic photography. In fact, I consider them both in the same genre: illustrations not reportage and not documentary photographs. Technically perfect and strongly graphic, but too often interchangeable and a bit generic. In some ways, perfect for an era in which much of our culture is defined by pre-fabricated and essentially interchangeable pop stars. It’s no coincidence that after more than 40 years, Leibovitz has become the iconic photographer of a continuous, constantly new – yet unchanging – line of celebrities.
I’m, of course, betraying my own bias. Liebovitz is a post-documentarian, just as the National Geographic is post-photojournalism. I admit I prefer old fashioned (or even new-fashioned) images that seek to capture the world as it is or as the photographer interprets it to be.
Liebovitz, for the most part, creates fantasies. Not fantastic, Jerry Uelsmann fantasies that reveal our secret fears and desires. Not amusing or sad little Duane Michals fantasies. Not even bizarre William Mortensen fantasies. But glossy, idealized, technically perfect fantasies. Fantasies that are frequently collaborations between her and her subjects that seldom reveal much about the individual and even less about the photographer.
Her craftsmanship can be flawless. She’s talented and makes striking and entertaining pictures. But, I think I agree with Gefter that Liebovitz’s portraits, are too often “staged, clever, and unrevealing.”
There are exceptions, of course, and I think that if one Liebovitz image stands the test of time, it’s probably that of John Lennon and Yoko Ono taken just hours before his death. It may be no less staged or clever than other Liebovitz pictures, but there is no denying that it is revealing – speaking volumes about the relationship between Lennon and Ono.
I admit there’s a part of me that feels about Liebovitz the same way I feel about Ansel Adams. There’s no denying the talent, but on a scale of one to ten, I can’t shake the feeling that it’s their marketing that deserves a twelve.