- Annie Leibovitz's Queer Consumption of Motherhood
The photographer Annie Leibovitz, chronicler of American life for thirty-five years, has created many of the images that people our collective unconscious: countercultural images in the 1970s when she traveled with the Beatles for Rolling Stone to controversial covers for Vanity Fair. She has chronicled her generation's passage through society and every other generation's as well. In the process, she has pushed limits and broken taboos, and she has destabilized notions of the beautiful, the outré, and the poignant. The point here is that she has not only photographed American culture but also changed it—that is, shifted the line between what is considered acceptable and unacceptable. Her genius lies in capturing the images that in retrospect are viewed as iconic: of Allen Ginsburg smoking a joint, of a naked John Lennon wrapped in fetal fashion around Yoko Ono hours before his death, of the actress Demi Moore naked and cradling her pregnant belly. This last, a cover for Vanity Fair in 1991, was almost pulled by then-editor Tina Brown; and while some newsstands wrapped the issue in opaque cellophane to protect the public's sensibilities, others refused to sell it. Eventually, the image won a prize from the American Society of Magazine Editors in 2005 for second-best cover from the past forty years (the first prize went to the Lennon image). This signature ability to shock and then change the public's sensibilities has made Leibovitz a daring moral and aesthetic pioneer even while she continues to be controversial.1
The subject matter of this essay is Leibovitz's traveling exhibit and her book based on the exhibit, Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer's Life, 1990–2005 and, in particular, her representation of her own "belated" motherhood. The exhibit opened in Brooklyn; traveled to San Francisco, where I saw it in 2008 at the Legion of Honor and then moved on to London and Paris. Leibovitz has typically shocked the public using other people's bodies; in this exhibit and book she also used her own ageing body to discomfit if not outright shock her viewers—in particular through dramatic images of her postmidlife (PM) cooptation of motherhood. I use the acronym PM, [End Page 81] which is deliberately ambiguous; it can stand not only for "postmidlife" but also for "post(peri)menopausal." It is meant to suggest the crossing over of a "natural" boundary.
The photos of the exhibit, Leibovitz notes in her introduction to the book, span the years of her relationship with the writer and critic Susan Sontag. Their relationship was mostly closeted—in the sense that Sontag and Leibovitz never referred to themselves as lovers, or as lesbians. Indeed, both refused labels other than the one of "friend."2 In this book, Leibovitz again insists on the word "friend" and thus on ambiguity; yet some of the photos seem to depict their relationship as unambiguously intimate. The book, Leibovitz notes in her introduction, is "a beauty book" that gestated in conversation with Sontag. It does contain images of surreal beauty: of timeless landscapes in Jordan and Egypt, for instance, which, notably, she visited with Sontag. It also contains the famous images from Leibovitz's professional portfolio: Hollywood actresses and bionic athletes captured in their moment of incandescent youth and indelible images of the seemingly larger-than-life moguls, entertainers, and politicians of our era. Interspersed with these iconic images—blown up in the exhibit—are small, ostensibly private, family photos: black-and-white images of Leibovitz's large extended family of origin, as well as a great many of Sontag, in bed with a typewriter, on vacation, enduring chemotherapy, and dying; the photos of her dying are juxtaposed with images of the births of Leibovitz's daughters, by which time Leibovitz was in her fifties.
"I don't have two lives," Leibovitz explains in her introduction. "This is one life, and the personal pictures and the assignment work are all part of it." She adds that it is "the closest thing to who I am that I've ever done" (Leibovitz 2006). I focus here on the family photos, and...