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Celebrity Photographer, Photographer Celebrity

Talking with Annie Leibovitz about the manufacture of cultural identity and the American dream

Frenzy surrounds the touring exhibition of photographs by Annie Leibovitz. When the retrospective opened two years ago at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., between 250,000 and 300,000 people saw the show during its five-week run -- as many visitors as the Portrait Gallery normally attracts in a year. In New York, hundreds reportedly mobbed the entrance to the International Center of Photography on the night of the show's opening, unable to get in. The overall attendance of more than 70,000 surpassed the ICP's previous record, set by an Henri Cartier-Bresson retrospective. At the Phoenix Art Museum, a last-minute extension of two weeks accommodated the desires of an unfulfilled throng.

The tumult is understandable. Leibovitz is routinely credited with seeing into the heart of American pop culture with her hipster lens. And although Leibovitz is a photographer of celebrities, she's also a photographer who is a celebrity in her own right. Iconographic and arresting, her images have been deemed signposts of postmodern life. There's the enduring image of a naked John Lennon curled up in a fetal position on the fully clothed body of his wife, Yoko Ono, taken just two hours before he was murdered by Mark David Chapman. Her 1979 photograph of Bette Midler is an aerial view showing the recumbent singer-actress with arms and legs akimbo, her torso covered by a blanket of scarlet roses. Actor/director/playwright Sam Shepard is decked out in chaps with horse and bridle. Actress Whoopi Goldberg is immersed in a bath of milk.

These images are among the 120 photographs currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts through January 30, the twelfth venue (with three more to go) to host Leibovitz's national tour. Sponsored by American Express, the exhibition is the first retrospective of Leibovitz's 20-year career and runs the gamut from her earliest assignments for Rolling Stone magazine through her current portraiture for Vanity Fair, as well as images created for The Gap and American Express advertising campaigns.

An Air Force brat who was born in Connecticut in 1949 and grew up in different parts of the country, Leibovitz intended to study painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. During a visit to her parents' home at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, she bought a camera in Japan. With it she shot and printed many photos, including one of her earliest published photographs, The Queen of the Negritos, in which a tiny woman holds hands with an American soldier. After several months on an Israeli kibbutz, Leibovitz returned to San Francisco in 1970 and took her prints to Rolling Stone, at the time a fledgling magazine devoted to chronicling the rock counterculture.

At Rolling Stone, Leibovitz became known for her black-and-white reportage -- rock stars backstage and in their private lives (she was commissioned to document the Rolling Stones on tour), a Christmas party at Soledad prison, Richard Nixon's last days at the White House. Whereas many of these images evoke the uncompromising street style of Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, Leibovitz began to produce elaborately staged and lighted scenes when the magazine shifted to color in 1974.

After 13 years as Rolling Stone's superstar shooter, Leibovitz became principal portraitist for Vanity Fair, a move which expanded her retinue to include writers, actors, politicians, movie stars and people who fed off the excesses of the 1980s. Along the way she garnered lucrative ad campaigns, a 1983 book (in addition to the more recent catalog accompanying the current exhibition) and a number of private gallery shows. Both magazines accurately diagnosed celebrity fever and understood its almost insatiable hunger for more stars. Indeed, Vanity FairI has aggressively promoted Leibovitz as a star photographer of stars. Her name is often highlighted on the magazine's cover -- a logical outgrowth of its distinctive brand of journalism, in which writers and photographers not only cover celebrities but become them.

Leibovitz's success as a portraitist, not to mention her ability to come up with a seemingly endless stream of bold and witty ideas for poses and settings, has met with resistance from some critics who feel that the work has shown only limited aesthetic development.

ut others are quick to point out that the more studied, formal shots which became her trademarks in the '80s also stand as a powerful document of the time: Donald and Ivana Trump poised on gilded chairs against a rococo mantel; Arnold Schwarzenegger in tight white breeches astride a magnificent white horse; Keith Haring's nude body painted to match the furniture he'd just decorated with his signature pictograms. All of these are composed neatly; figure and ground merge for flattened pictures with a graphic punch. As magazine formats have grown tighter, Leibovitz has continued to recast the single, storytelling portrait, using humor and surprise to make a photograph grab your attention instantly.

In a recent interview at the MFA, Leibovitz talked about the retrospective, which marks her bid for artistic respectability as well as show-biz renown. The tall and lanky Leibovitz was dressed in a black suit and white shirt. Although she was gracious, even businesslike, in discussing her work and career, I got the feeling that perhaps she has answered too many questions on celebrities and photo sessions. (Leibovitz's sponsor, American Express, schedules a round of 30-minute interviews, in addition to press briefings, at each tour stop.) What I sensed may have been a yearning to take her work in other directions, as well as a curious reluctance to talk about the culture she has helped shape and define.

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