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Grand photographs and little words – Annie Leibovitz and her lecture

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Question from the audience: “In some cultures people believe that photographers can see your soul. Do you think that there’s a pinch of truth in that?”
Annie Leibovitz: “Well, you know, photographers have a soul, too and that’s the answer to this question.”

When soccer players are asked to comment on the victory or defeat of a match, the  most unnecessary situations arise. Surprisingly we are so much used to standard phrases like “The teamwork was really good today, so we won” that we don’t even realize the lack of meaning. Why is it not enough to watch a soccer game and take it for real, finite and done. Why are masters of a certain discipline put in the spot to prove sense of their achievements in their own words? Or in other words: what was that Annie Leibovitz lecture about?

Annie Leibovitz was invited to lecture on her recent exhibition in Berlin, a retrospective of her personal and contract work of the last two decades, titled “A Photographer’s Life 1990-2005“. (Indeed the exhibition covers more than two decades also comprising a few photographs from the 1980s.) In the sold-out venue, an old school gym of the c/o in Berlin, two chairs faced each other, bottled water sat on a little table and waited to be poured into one of the two glasses. The audiences’ chairs surrounded the scene, focusing a rather thrilling attention in the center. (Tickets had been sold on E-bay for more than nine times of the face value the day before the event.)

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Before the lecture

The lecture wasn’t so much a lecture than an interview which turned out to be more of a talk than an interview. Prof. Dr. von Bismarck was chosen to ask thoroughly relevant questions concerning her recent exhibition while also addressing personal aspects of her (work)life.

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Prof. Dr. Beatrice von Bismarck on her quest for relevance

Perhaps she could have asked the temperature outside: Annie answered a lot …  and very seldom even the questions. Those of the visitors who hoped to get a glimpse on how she develops her ideas, how she works with her crew, how she shoots her models, what she thinks while she works, how she composes her pictures, and what kind of mastermind works behind that great scene must have been quite sobered. Those who needed proof that she truly is human were served exactly this: Annie Leibovitz sometimes struggled to align her thoughts, struggled to find the right words. She fought for a deeper, a more profound meaning which seemed to be impossible to put in words. Through this struggle of an attempt to the making of meaning it strikingly became evident that she truly is a photographer and that only and exclusively photography is her language.

annieleibovitzmotherAnnie Leibovitz about the picture of her mother Marilyn:
“It’s a real picture. Whatever that means.”

A lot of her grand ideas originated from her partner Susan Sontag. It was her who never seemed satisfied with Annie’s work, and it was her who showed her quite plainly the perpetual choice of either “being a total dilettante and jerk” or “to work and be better” – at a time when Annie had already established herself as a photographer. It was Susan’s idea to get her out of the shiny world of Rolling StoneVogue and Vanity fair, to return to being a documentarist in areas of conflict in Africa and Bosnia-Herzegovina for some time, to coming full circle or to putting her recent work into perspective. It was her partner who encouraged her to be more than she could be.

She talked about the selection process of the photos for her recent book and exhibition and how the two subsequent death of Susan and her father in 2004 and 2005 influenced the decision. “The edit (of the book) came with the moment of deep grief. It was everything that art was supposed to be. You’re working and you are working hard and you don’t know where you are going … and [choosing the photographs] might have been the first time that I really understood art.

She explained how great it was to become a mother in her fifties, what her family means to her, what her work means to her and why it was important to show her private and her contract work in one exhibition: “Both were part of one life, a photographer’s life. A life through a lens.

This is as profound as it got. Needless to say that one room of the exhibition tells you more than her lecture, the released DVD, the media coverage of the last years and this blog entry together. In fact it is highly strange that people feel the urge to find words for everything – even when the pictures are so grand, bold, alive and true as those of Annie Leibovitz.


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