Life Through A Lens

Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens (2006)

Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens first published by Film4

Summary: Barbara Leibovitz’s broad-ranging documentary brings the life of her celebrated photographer sister into sharp focus.

Review: About half an hour into Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens, we see the celebrated photographer leaning in close to talk with her friend, the ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. “This is true – right here – us”, she says, adding by way of contrast (as she points to the camera in her hand): “This, this is not true.” Later, as the final credits roll, we see a similar image of Leibovitz and Baryshnikov together, with Leibovitz’s camera left discarded in the foreground of the shot.

The paradox, of course, is that even here our only access to what is “true” is through a lens – in this case that of the documentary’s director Barbara Leibovitz. Just as Annie will reject the idea that “you’ve captured someone” in a photograph, modestly redefining her art as merely offering a “heightened”, “one-dimensional moment” or “a little tiny slice” of its subjects, so too Barbara’s film, for all its broad coverage, multiple interviewees, and many carefully edited images, is no more than a portrait in mosaic – not unlike the walls of photographs, some personal, some political, some commercial, that Annie is shown collating for a retrospective book. 

Still, as Annie’s book editor Mark Holborn points out, what is important and brings the images to life is “this interweaving” of different subject matters – and it is Annie’s propensity to shoot anything and everything, whether it be her family, musicians, presidents, poets, dancers, movie stars, models, war zones, or even the gradual decline of her father and her lover, that makes both her work, and this documentary, a fascinating window onto the last four decades of American history and iconography. 

In this way, Life Through a Lens serves two different, and to an extent contrary, purposes. On the one hand it is a more or less conventional biography of Annie, tracing out her early years, her pioneering work with Rolling Stone magazine and later Vanity Fair, the development of her style from mobile reportage to more elaborate set-up shots, her relationship with the late Susan Sontag and with her three young children, and her rôle as one of the principal gatekeepers of contemporary celebrity culture. On the other hand, the film serves to explore the limits of both the photographic and the documentary arts as a conduit for reality. 

Being Annie’s sister gives the director unusually intimate access to her subject, and having Annie as her subject opens doors to as wide a range of A-list interviewees and character witnesses as is ever likely to be assembled in a low-budget documentary. From Hillary Clinton to Arnold Schwarzenegger, from Tina Brown to Anna Wintour, from Demi Moore to Gloria Steinem, we get an extensive cross-section of Annie’s subjects and acquaintances, all too happy to be associated with the woman who has helped to shape their public image, and who consequently has become their equal in fame. If at times their contributions seem little more than pithy soundbites, that just makes their cameos the televisual equivalent of Annie’s chosen medium, the snapshot. 

All this exposes the prime position of Annie’s photographs as fragments of cultural memory, there to document where we have come from, and more importantly how we looked along the way – at the best and worst of times. 

Verdict: This slice of American cultural history reveals an iconic, iconographic photographer on both sides of the lens.

Anton Bitel