Here are some ways to know you've arrived: Winning an award, having your own Wikipedia page and getting your photo taken by Annie Leibovitz. You remember Annie, the one who takes all those photos for Vanity Fair and HBO. But as beautiful as her staged photos look on the cover of a magazine or on the side of a bus, her second major gallery show has more or less proved that their appeal is just commercial.
Leibovitz, a frequent Vanity Fair contributor, has many pieces in the magazine's exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in London. It's her second major exhibit since her Brooklyn Museum show in the fall of 2006. And the critical response is the same. She might be great with color, but much like a Vanity Fair profile, her photos are so staged that they don't really capture anything in her subjects.
But who am I? I only take pictures so my happy times can make my Facebook frienemies jealous. Real critics agree!
From the National Portrait Gallery Show:
The atmosphere on the shoots featured in Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens bears this out. They have become more elaborate and less fun, one imagines, for the participants. Standing for hours in itchy 18th-century wigs while this self-confessed aesthete finds the right configuration for your limbs must be a bore but none of the young actors would dream of complaining. The promise of immortality gives Leibovitz a godlike power. She can be as terse-lipped as she likes, as long as she retains the power to redeem the chosen from the thing they fear most.
Sure, playing dress up with famous people is fun, but Leibovitz's photos reinforce their public relations image, instead of exposing her subjects' true self. The Suri Cruise cover ignored the obvious craziness in that arrangement, but validated Tom Cruise's self-imposed image as a doting (and sane) father.
The museum, desirous of a big-name exhibition, seems to have ceded too much control to its subject, and as a result, the show is an unconscious exercise in ego gratification that serves no one well. Leaking vanity and ambition, at once yearning for greatness and blithely assuming that greatness has been achieved, the works on view are like a high-brow, static form of reality television. It is fueled by an obsession with celebrity and accented with the trappings of first-class travel, serious real estate and privilege. Its revelations are mostly inadvertent.
Annie Leibovitz is sort of like American Idol this season. The buzz is pretty much dead, but she's still around and still profitable. And that still counts for something. It's just not high art.