PHOTOGRAPHY / How flattery got Annie everywhere: Annie Leibovitz has easier access to the famous than any other photographer. That's the problem, says Giles Smith

THE PICTURES from Sarajevo come last - 12 of them in a block featuring blood and death and one grim birth, closing this retrospective of work by Annie Leibovitz, queen of the celebrity portrait, toast of Vanity Fair. The message is, there's a world of suffering out there; but coming after yards of celebs in succulent colour - athletes, politicians, rock stars, film stars, Richard Branson - you may find it arrives a little late.

Leibovitz is 44, unassailably established, yet maybe pondering a change of gear, or wondering how things might have gone in other circumstances. Certainly in a decade of chiefly black-and- white assignments for Rolling Stone, you see in embryo another kind of photographer altogether. The shot of the country singer Tammy Wynette taken in 1971 is richly satirical: Wynette smiling openly on a prim porch, with a prim pooch, the manicured lawn receding to the shiny car - a scene on to which the baby tucked under her arm pours puffy-faced scorn. In the context of this exhibition, it's an unusual picture because it seems to contain a dialogue. What Leibovitz has done over the last decade or so is to banish that possibility from her work.

When she started with Vanity Fair in 1981, she gave up taking people in the act of doing what they do or being what they are, and instead concentrated on producing hugely contrived fantasies on the way she saw them, or the way they saw themselves. These set-ups are saucy, sexy, occasionally funny (Arnold Schwarzenegger sucking a fat cigar, his thighs clamped round a veiny stallion; Whoopi Goldberg sunk in a bath of milk), but they are always flattering. Even the people in potentially unflattering poses are flattered for taking the risk. With Leibovitz, you can literally dive into the muck, like Lauren Hutton, or Roseanne and Tom Arnold, or Sting, and still come up smelling of roses. No wonder celebrities love her so much.

From black-and-white she went to colour and to pin-sharp focus and wantonly artificial lighting - California enriched by halogen. David Hockney is so vividly back-lit that he appears superimposed on the Los Angeles view. Jodie Foster, glowing in the side-lights, stands against the sunset like an iron-on transfer. These images are designed, no expense spared, to push out at you; this exhibition houses the most expensive set of publicity stills in the world.

There's no doubting how well these pictures do their job, no questioning their allure, their glossy attraction. (The one we know, perhaps, better than any - Demi Moore, naked and heavily pregnant - isn't on the walls at all: a peculiar omission.) But then we are predisposed towards staring at famous people, so the question of a Leibovitz portrait angling for your interest, cunningly drawing you in, doesn't apply. For the most part, her techniques are, in fact, less than subtle. Take her love of a bright, singing red - magazine-spread red. There it is in Jodie Foster's dress and Ella Fitzgerald's two- piece and David Hockney's trousers and Muhammad Ali's carpet and the drape on Jose Carreras's bed. The shot of Sammy Davis Jnr, set against the Nevada desert, is a virtual silhouette but for the red handkerchief fluffing from his top pocket. This picture is no different from countless postcard images which briefly entertain the eye by recording an alarming occurrence of brightness. Except that the postcard-makers are by and large working with anonymous sources, while Annie Leibovitz gets to play with Sammy Davis Jnr and we accordingly give the picture a little more of our time.

The deal for the celebrities is this: nothing will be revealed that you don't wish to reveal - except, inadvertently, your lack of taste or your rampant egotism (consider Daniel Day-Lewis, shot quarter-on and dressed up as if posing for Gainsborough). As such, there is no tension in the relationship between sitter and photographer - only a flat sense of complicity. The pictures arouse a mild curiosity in their subjects (why was he / she interested in looking like that?) but more frequently they return you to the photographer - to the miracle of her power and access. What distinguishes these pictures in the end is not virtuosity or inspiration. It is the plain fact that they are taken by Annie Leibovitz. This is a neatly self-fulfilling routine: it will doubtless run and run.

Talking of access, the Annie Leibovitz exhibition is brought to the National Portrait Gallery by American Express. In what must be the most bizarre concession structure ever organised at a national museum, reductions on the admission price are available to the unwaged, but carriers of an exclusive credit card get in for nothing. There's a message in there somewhere.

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
Arts and Entertainment

Grace Dent on TV

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us