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'Rock 'n' roll photographer' comes of age

Story Highlights

• Exhibition of photographer Annie Leibovitz's work in Atlanta
• Leibovitz includes celebrity, starkly personal photographs
• Best known for rock stars, Vanity Fair covers
By Porter Anderson
CNN
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Annie Leibovitz lopes through the blond-floored galleries at the High Museum of Art, eyed by film stars, comedians, writers, dancers and those who have known and loved her best.

"You know, my mother," she stops near a small image, a group of four. A bathing-suited Marilyn Leibovitz is pictured, solidly balanced on the sands of a Long Island beach. She's executing a side arabesque, a ballet movement she loved as a teacher of modern dance. "It's hard to find a picture of my mother not doing that." ( Watch Leibovitz describe her work and what it means to her Video )

Once surrounded, as Leibovitz is, by some 175 of her often celebrated images, it's tempting to feel she knows each subject just as well as she knows her mom-on-one-leg. ( Watch an audio slide show in which Leibovitz discusses several key works. )

"A Photographer's Life, 1990-2005" opens Saturday at Atlanta's High Museum of Art, and represents a somewhat controversial departure for Leibovitz. There's much more than the "assignment" images, some as famous as the nude profile of a pregnant Demi Moore commissioned for the cover of Vanity Fair.

In addition, Leibovitz has chosen to include some highly personal images, including shots from the births of her three daughters, the death of her father and many from her long relationship with author-essayist Susan Sontag, who died in 2004.

"After she died," Leibovitz says, "I went looking for a picture for a memorial book that we were going to give out at the memorial service." What was chosen was a dramatic image of the dark rocks of the ancient city of Petra in Jordan. Tiny, at the break in the stone at ground level, stands Sontag, taking in the towering frieze carved into the forward rock face.

"I found this picture," Leibovitz says, taking it in, "... sort of a beckoning picture into life."

The experience of choosing that shot of Sontag and remembering the travels and times the two enjoyed together prompted her to merge commercial and private artwork into a huge book from Random House -- which serves as a catalog to the show -- and then into this touring exhibition organized last fall at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

This is the second such major retrospective of her work, the first covering two decades, 1970 to 1990, put together under the auspices of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington.

Now 57, she likes to talk of how much easier it is to know when a shoot is finished. She also has developed a keen sense for where she wants a portrait to go.

In the case of Jim Carrey, for example, she started with British artist Francis Bacon's studies after Velasquez's Pope Innocent X. Carrey's trademark rubber-faced, wide-mouthed comedy thus ends up related to a boxed-in, agonized visage of Bacon's papal imagery.

Comedians, she points out, can be among the trickiest subjects: "The worst thing that happens with comedians is people always want them to be funny in pictures. What does that mean, 'to be funny?'"

Behind the lens

Born in Westport, Connecticut, in 1949, the daughter of an Air Force officer, Leibovitz became interested in photography in the late 1960s. While Rolling Stone was still a young magazine, editor Jann Wenner hired her, making her chief photographer in 1973 -- and giving her the label "rock 'n' roll photographer" along the way, as she followed Mick Jagger, John Lennon and others.

Advertisement work and cover layouts for Vanity Fair, Vogue, Conde Nast Traveler and other publications followed, cementing her in the collective consciousness as a creator of image-defining artwork.

The current show includes portraits of the Bush Cabinet -- before several members left -- and of Colin Powell, Chris Rock, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Brad Pitt and one of Leibovitz's inspirations, the late Richard Avedon.

There also are very large photographs of landscapes, vistas in which the human subject is replaced by natural character on a vast scale.

Ultimately, the combination of the personal and commercial work, with some images as small as a standard snapshot and others measured by feet rather than inches, is a kind of darkroom disappearing act.

That's not to say Leibovitz isn't recognizable. Awards showered on her have included the Commandeur in France's Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and a Living Legend commendation from the Library of Congress.

It's more a question of what happens when her approach doesn't follow the symbolic personality tack she takes to so many celebrities.

Tony Kushner, writer of the "Angels in America" plays, wears AIDS-activist buttons. Pitt lolls on an orange bedspread in Las Vegas in faux-leopard-spotted pants, also orange. Dancer-choreographer Bill T. Jones vaults right out of Leibovitz's childhood -- her mother, Marilyn, taught modern dance. ( Read about Jones' choreography this season for Broadway's 'Spring Awakening' )

But the discovery awaiting fans of her work in this exhibition may be what Leibovitz does when looking the other way, if you will, not toward fame and fashion but toward her family, friends, singular moments, cherished locales, scenes developed in a solution of fond attachments, aching allegiances and focused hindsight.

"It's this idea of letting things unfold in front of you," she says. "You're not doing journalism, you really do have a point of view. And it's done with a 35-millimeter camera, black and white. ... I just aim the camera and take the pictures."


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Annie Leibovitz's "A Photographer's Life, 1990-2005," opens Saturday at Atlanta's High Museum to run until September 9.

'A PHOTOGRAPHER'S LIFE'

  • In Atlanta: The High's presentation of the exhibition runs through September 9 and is sponsored by American Express.

  • Other showings:
    October 13, 2007-January 13, 2008: The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
    February 9-May 11, 2008: The Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco
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