Over exposed: Is Annie Leibovitz worthy of a retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery?

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In the announcement of the National Portrait Gallery's forthcoming retrospective of work by the celebrated New York-based portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz, one of the sponsors of the show lets us know how proud he is to be working with Annie (note the personal touch) again. Words such as trust, respect, service are bandied about. These are words that are at odds with what many of us think photographers are up to quite a lot of the time. But surely Leibovitz is not one of these? Surely Leibovitz, photographer of an entire, all-too-well-known world of stars and starlets, is not quite like this?

Leibovitz was born in Waterbury, Connecticut, in 1949. Her father was a lieutenant-colonel in the US Air Force, and her mother a teacher of modern dance who studied with Martha Graham. The young Leibovitz had ambitions to be a painter when she first enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute, but it was photography that she became enthralled by. Her rise through the ranks was rapid. By 1975 she was chief photographer for Rolling Stone. She covered Richard Nixon's resignation, and the Rolling Stones tour of 1975. In 1980 she took a photograph of a naked John Lennon on a bed, wrapped around Yoko. Hours later he was shot. The editors of Rolling Stone wanted to use a crop of Lennon, naked and alone, on the cover of the magazine, but Leibovitz insisted that the two of them be shown together.

Then began the long association with Vanity Fair, Vogue and other magazines, not to mention the number of major advertising assignments she has undertaken for Gap and others. She photographed a heavily pregnant, nude Demi Moore, for Vanity Fair in 1991, looking quite chillingly stark. She photographed Bette Midler on a bed of roses, Arnold Schwarzenegger astride a white horse, smoking a fat cigar, and Whoopie Goldberg wallowing in a bathtub of milk.

Her photographs of the famous are often stagey and stage-managed. She does a lot of research. She studies images of her subjects. She calculates the effects – and then she goes for them. This is the problem with Leibovitz. She controls – and she contrives – too much. If you take a roll call of some of the great portrait photographers of the 20th century, what you immediately notice is that the element of theatre is often at its best when it is happened upon quite by chance, in the street or down the mine. It is life caught on the wing, in the raw. But Leibovitz is too machine-like, too studied, too much in calculated anticipation of the effects that her pictures will have on the onlooker.

But there is a softer and more interesting side to Leibovitz, too, of which we are promised a glimpse in this show. This is the photographer who is not working to please commercial interests, who is merely observing people, not talking, just observing and letting herself be absorbed into the character and the situation of what she is seeing in front of her eyes. These are unstudied portraits of her family, unusually intimate and casual.

"Most of the photographs of my family were taken at gatherings around a dining table or a pond or beside the ocean," she has commented. There are also the travel photographs she has taken from time to time. She was once assigned to work for Conde Nast Traveller, but the partnership was soon dissolved. There was simply not enough optimism or good weather in her beach scenes, not enough encouragement to travel anywhere. One of the best of her travel photographs is a dramatic yoking together of portraiture, natural scenery and architecture. It is a back view of her late partner Susan Sontag in Petra, Jordan, a tiny, vulnerable figure, between massive muscular outcrops of rock, staring up at a Roman temple in the desert.

So there are the no-expense-spared, globe-trotting contrivances of beauty and style. And then, equally importantly, there is that all-important question of trust. At the end of the day, sitters have to trust the person who is standing in front of them with the camera. Equally, they are entirely at the mercy of the camera's eye because how a photograph gets cropped, used, contextualised, changes its meaning, utterly. Is Lennon to be cropped until he is alone? Or is he to be seen to be partnered and embraced by the woman he loves, which means that there is no longer the subliminal, unspoken hint that he may or may not have been a personality cast adrift? That time Leibovitz made the right decision.

But recently, when Leibovitz photographed Miley Cyrus, star of the Disney film Hannah Montana, for Vanity Fair, and persuaded her to adopt ever more sexy poses because they were allegedly "artistic" was it really surprising that the young girl should have been outraged that she had been exploited by her famous friend? As Miley herself said of that session: "You can't say no to Annie. She gets this puppy-dog look, and you're like, OK..."

Well, few people have said no to Leibovitz, because to be chosen by Leibovitz is a kind of benediction by a celebrity. If you are famous already, and you are made even more famous by one of the world's most famous photographers, who is the loser in this game? Whether or not you end up being ruthlessly manipulated is another matter altogether.

Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer's Life, 1990-2005, National Portrait Gallery, London, from 16 October to 25 January 2009

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