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How Could This Happen to Annie Leibovitz?

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Leibovitz has shot scores of memorable celebrity, fashion, and darker, more artistic photos in her 40-year career.  

There was an obvious symbiosis to the relationship. Sontag, whose 1977 monograph On Photography is required reading for most photography majors, gave Leibovitz, who believed the label of “celebrity photographer” was demeaning, a new kind of credibility. “It’s as if Tom Cruise started going out with Akira Kurosowa,” a respected portrait photographer told me. Leibovitz, meanwhile, offered Sontag tangible benefits. Despite her well-maintained image as an intellectual, Sontag enjoyed being around movie stars and sometimes dropped by Leibovitz’s studio for high-wattage shoots. Sontag also enjoyed sharing Leibovitz’s high-priced life. Because they each had a top-floor apartment in Chelsea’s redbrick London Terrace—with terraces across from one another—Leibovitz’s housekeeper, Sookhee, would clean Sontag’s place, too, and Leibovitz’s personal chef would bring meals to Sontag. Sontag once called Paris “the alternative capital of my imagination”; Leibovitz bought an apartment for the couple to use overlooking the Seine.

The famously opinionated Sontag encouraged Leibovitz to make her work more personal and artistic. There was a student-teacher quality to their relationship, with all the attendant power dynamics. “The fact that she was even interested in me or my work was just so flattering to me,” Leibovitz once said. “Even if she criticized it.” Sontag advised Leibovitz to find a home at the prestigious Edwynn Houk Gallery, convincing her of the importance of sharing representation with the estates of Brassaï and Dorothea Lange. Sontag’s input wasn’t welcomed by everyone. In the mid-nineties, Leibovitz altered her style of shooting cover images to appeal more to Sontag’s taste than that of her boss. “Her pictures became very dark and brooding and painterly,” Carter says of the years he calls Leibovitz’s Blue Period. “The portraits were spectacular, but in order to sell between 400,000 and 700,000 copies on the newsstand, you need a cover that’s either funny or iconic.”

In 2001, at 51, Leibovitz gave birth to a daughter, Sarah. Even though Sontag would be present for the birth and doted on Sarah, she wasn’t in favor of the idea of Leibovitz’s having a child. “I think she wanted me to herself,” Leibovitz has said. The distance between the couple grew wider when Leibovitz hired a rigid British baby nurse whom Sontag despised and came to call “the nanny from hell.”

Dan Kellum worked as Leibovitz’s assistant in 2002. Despite the ample help Leibovitz had, Kellum says he felt sorry for her because she was emotionally alone. “There was no one in Annie’s life that could say to her, ‘Relax, the baby’s going to be fine,’ ” he says. Leibovitz’s obsessiveness was reflected in her mothering, Kellum says. When Sarah started eating solid food, a rigorous journaling policy was instituted, in which every bite and bowel movement was to be committed to an unlined black notebook purchased from the Swedish stationer Ordning & Reda. Kellum regularly ordered replacement books from Stockholm so that the journaling could easily continue from one book to another. Once, when an order got lost in customs, Leibovitz insisted on having two notebooks sent from Stockholm via a special type of courier service called “quicking.” It was essentially like buying a seat for a parcel on the next plane. The shipping cost alone came to $800. (Leibovitz also had twin daughters, Samuelle and Susan, born via surrogate and named after her father and Sontag, in 2005.)

Sontag had had recurring bouts of cancer over the years, and in the spring of 2004, she learned that the disease had returned. Despite the distance between them, and the fact that Leibovitz was also attending to her own father, Sam, who was being treated for terminal lung cancer in Florida at the time, Leibovitz spared no effort in helping Sontag. She secured a friend’s private plane to transport Sontag to Seattle for a bone-marrow transplant, arranged for friends and family to be with her around the clock, and chartered another private plane to fly her back to New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Three days after Christmas in 2004, Sontag passed away.

When the state of Leibovitz’s finances later became public, outlets like Salon trumpeted the “gay tax” theory, the idea that Leibovitz’s finances had been depleted by the taxes she’d had to pay on her inheritance from Sontag. That wasn’t true. With the exception of four items of only sentimental value, the bulk of Sontag’s estate went to David Rieff, Sontag’s only child. Leibovitz’s relationship with Sontag was not mentioned in Sontag’s New York Times obituary, and Leibovitz did not speak at Sontag’s memorial service.

In 2006, Leibovitz mounted a retrospective of her previous fifteen years of work at the Brooklyn Museum. Along with the well-known magazine photographs, she included the private, more artistic work Sontag had encouraged, including shots of Sontag, unrecognizably bloated and visibly in pain in her hospital bed in Seattle, and one of Sontag’s body laid out in her favorite dress in a back room of the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel. The New York Times critic Roberta Smith dubbed the portraits “professional but pedestrian.” “It is hard not to feel that Sontag functioned a bit like Ms. Leibovitz’s own personal celebrity,” Smith wrote, “enabling her to share a fame that she found more authentic than her own.” Last year, Rieff published Swimming in a Sea of Death, a memoir of his mother’s battle with cancer. He mentions Leibovitz’s name exactly twice in the book, once to describe her pictures of his dead and dying mother as “carnival images of celebrity death.”


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