Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Reading. Leibowitz/Sontag.

Part II.

When you are an artist, your public and private lives, work and play, are closely intertwined, almost indistinguishable. As a writer you examine everything close to you, from your innermost thoughts to everyone who has ever touched you, and lay them bare for the world to see, hoping they will understand you. As a photographer you are constantly looking at everything and everyone around you, capturing a moment, an expression, the play of light across a landscape, the flicker of shadows, so that others will see what you saw when you held the camera up to your eye. When you record your memories, in words or images, it becomes a physical memory, something to examine, something to bring the past alive again, to bring back to life something or someone you have loved and lost. Conclusive evidence.

In the introduction to A Photographer's Life: 1990-2005, Annie Leibowitz writes that Going through my pictures was like being on an archaeological dig...I considered doing a book made up completely of personal work...and concluded that the personal work on its own wasn't a true view of the last fifteen years...This is one life, and the personal pictures and the assignment work are all part of it. Therefore the images collected in A Photographer's Life span the long relationship between Susan Sontag and Annie Leibowitz, with images from Leibowitz's work for magazines such as Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Rolling Stone, and personal photographs of her family, Sontag, her daughters. There is a photograph, spread across two pages, of a sculpture of a reclining nude woman draped in cloth in the Cimitero Monumentale, in Milan. It is immediately followed by three photographs of Susan sprawled across a rumpled bed in her New York bedroom, her pose a reflection of the preceding image.

Between holidays in Italy and assignments in Jordan, Berlin, Sarajevo, there are photographs of Sontag, post-surgery and during chemo, when she was diagnosed with uterine sarcoma in 1998; her trademark mane of hair, dark with a bold streak of silver, is still intact until it is shorn away for the chemotherapy. There is a portrait of her, afterwards, with closely-cropped hair that is pure silver. Leibowitz wrote that she did not photograph Sontag during the last illness until the very end, pale and bloated in her hospital bed (the same hospital I knew so well), her face etched with pain and sadness, then her body clad in Fortuny-inspired pleats and Venetian scarves and strings of beads on her funeral bier. The intimacy of it is heartbreaking, like David Rieff's description of his mother's last days, her last breaths.

Six weeks after Susan's death, Leibowitz's father died, at home, in his sleep. There are photographs of his last days, too, surrounded by family. The act of putting this book together, gathering images together from a fifteen-year span, both intimate family photographs and famous celebrity portraits that I remember from magazines, was for Leibowitz an integral part of the grieving process. The images form an arc encompassing the years of Leibowitz and Sontag’s relationship, Sontag and Leibowitz’s father’s death, their burials, and the birth of Liebowitz’s daughters, circling back again to the earlier years of Leibowitz and Sontag’s life together. In the introduction Leibowitz wrote that they would go to museums and Susan would want her to see exactly what she was seeing, standing in the exact same spot, the way her writing made you see and understand the world the way she saw and understood it. Such is art, and such is the way of artists, to give you a view through their own eyes so you might see everything anew. Grief, love, death, life.

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