Death and Cameras

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Susan Sontag, Peter Hujar, 1975 / © THE PETER HUJAR ARCHIVE

Recently I finished Swimming in a Sea of Death, David Rieff’s memoir about the final illness of his mother, the writer Susan Sontag. She was 73 when she died late in 2004 of a virulent form of leukemia. Towards the end of his book Rieff wonders whether, instead of suffering that prolonged ordeal, it might have been better if his mother had died abruptly of something like a heart attack. At least that way, he writes:

She would not have had the time to mourn herself and to become physically unrecognizable at the end even to herself, let along humiliated posthumously by being “memorialized” that way in those carnival images of celebrity death taken by Annie Leibovitz.

The “carnival images” he’s referring to are the pictures that Leibovitz included in her book and traveling exhibition, Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life, 1990-2005. Leibovitz was Sontag’s companion for 15 years. (“On again, off again companion” is Rieff’s term.) In the exhibition and book she included a number of photographs of Sontag, including some from the last year of her life, when she was being devoured by her illness. One shows her on a rolling stretcher after being removed from a private plane after a hospital stay. There’s another of her in death, laid out in a pleated Fortuny gown that Leibovitz says Sontag loved. And there are others.

A little background. Over a period of about a month in the summer of 1988 I met with Sontag once a week to profile her for Time. I was almost literally a lifelong admirer, since high school, when I had come across the cheap paperback edition of Against Interpretation, her famous first collection of essays. (Yes, there was once a world in which a collection of essays on “difficult”, mostly European artists and writers would be issued in a mass market edition.) She was intimidating, but also gracious, funny and patient.

Meanwhile I’ve never been a great fan of Leibovitz’s. Most of her pictures strike me as ingenious and all too efficient in the way they wrap up a celebrity into some high pitched version of the familiar package that they are. They tell us what we already know and they tell it to a T.

All the same, the subdued black and white pictures that Leibovitz took of Sontag in illness and death didn’t strike me in quite the same way that they did her son. “Carnival” isn’t the word for them. It’s the word for the context in which they were shown — a big museum exhibition that was Leibovitz’s dual-pronged bid for status. On the one hand she was showing black and white pictures of Sontag and of her own family, including her aging parents — her father died a few weeks after Sontag — and also of Sarajevo, where Sontag had gone in the 1990s when it was under siege, and where Leibovitz followed for a time.

But this was an Annie Leibovitz show, so all around there was also plenty of her assignment work for Vanity Fair, big glossy color shots of Nicole Kidman and Brad Pitt and Demi Moore and so on. The black and white portion of the show was there to insist that she was more than Hollywood’s court photographer, and in that context the pictures of Sontag in her final days felt like a career move, another part of her bid for seriousness, no matter how genuine her grief, which I have no reason to question. And it was the context that turned the pictures into images of “celebrity death”. When I read Rieff’s bitter words I thought of something Sontag wrote in Illness as Metaphor — that the worst legacy of Romanticism was the notion of “the interesting”.

Leibovitz ended her show with a portrait of Richard Avedon, who was one of the great 20th century portraitists of any kind, and it was no mystery why she did. Avedon had also made his name first with fashion and glamor photography, and never put that aside, but over the years moved into another kind of picture making that operated along very different nerve paths. An artist immersed in the fashion world, he understood that we would carry our recollections of his fashion shots — all that superabundance of vanitas — over to the pitiless black and white portraits he made of celebrities and ordinary people that inspected every wrinkle and sag with a very cold eye. And Avedon also photographed his own dwindling father when he was dying from cancer.

Avedon’s most glamorous and worldly pictures gave a very deliberate context to his meditations on decay and death. Leibovitz wanted her “serious” pictures to be understood in the light of his. And if they had been better — if any of her work had been better — they might have been.