Let Us Now Praise Famous Women

Women, a collection of photographs by celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz with an introductory essay by Susan Sontag, has already been soundly spanked by the critics. So why talk about it now? Because while its detractors have rightly noted that the book’s organizing principle–women in all their diversity–is banal, they have not responded to an implicit and probably unintended message of the book. As Culturebox sees it, the real topic of Women is Celebrity–specifically, how the world looks to a celebrity photographer.

Hillary Clinton Let’s start with the pictures–portraits of women, most of them well-known, a few of them not. Leibovitz photographed the famous women on assignment for high-end magazines (Vanity Fair, Vogue, The New Yorker). She probably took the pictures of the unknown women on her own. (There are no notes to tell us where the photographs were originally published, so it’s hard to say which pictures were assignments and which ones Leibovitz was simply moved to take.) The famous are depicted in ways designed to reinforce our warmest feelings about them. Hillary Clinton looks youthfully studious as she pores over papers on the White House’s sunny balcony. A bold and cheerful Ann Richards, the former governor of Texas, hefts a rifle on a hunting expedition. Performer Anna Deavere Smith holds up one hand and testifies, seemingly lost inside one of her many magnificent evangelical characters. Sigourney Weaver, Nicole Kidman, and Drew Barrymore are each sexy in their own glamorous ways. The athletes are each tough in their own heroic ways. As the image of one famous woman follows another, we seem to understand why they’ve made such names for themselves: They are so singular, so attractive, so powerful, the world just had to take notice of them.

Sewing-machine operator in sweatshop It’s harder to describe the nonfamous women, since their portraits lend themselves less well to personal characterization. Unlike the celebrity portraits, these were mostly taken without benefit of makeup, props, and lighting design; as a result, faces tend to disappear into contexts. The miners are grimy. The sewing machine operator sews. The farmers farm. The teen-ager is ripely innocent. The victim of domestic abuse looks battered. They are icons, in short, either of their pioneering professions or else of their stereotypically feminine situation. The path-breaking professionals tend to stare defiantly into the camera: Imagine telling Dorothy A. Richman, a rabbinical student wrapped in phylacteries and holding a Torah, that she can’t serve God! The women trapped in servile roles, on the other hand, withdraw from Leibovitz. Their faces are blank or frankly hostile. You can’t look for long at the picture of Maria Eugenia Ponce, a waitress at a Los Angeles diner, so raw are the shame and distrust in her eyes. We still feel a certain warmth toward these all-but-anonymous women–Leibovitz specializes in warm–but it’s a much more abstract emotion. We feel proud of, or sad for, women in general, not for any woman in particular.

In short, individuality here becomes a function of fame. The better known you are, the more appealing a personality Leibovitz will grant you. This is not to accuse her of lacking sympathy for the nonfamous. But Leibovitz is a commercial photographer. When she’s told to shoot a celebrity, she shows up with a crew, an expansive amount of time, and the driving idea that this person is important and must be allowed to get her identity across. Non-celebrities have less claim on Leibovitz, on her time, money, and curiosity, and therefore a reduced impact on us–although it must also be said that Leibovitz makes distinctions between non-celebrities, according an empathy and humanity to inspiring professionals that she can’t seem to extend to the abjectly downtrodden.

To be fair to Leibovitz, she’s working under two other constraints. One is formal: It’s hard to communicate roundness of character in a single photograph, which is perforce a limited slice of space and time. How much easier it must be to photograph women whose identities are already publicly disseminated! All you have to do is gather up the strands of commonly told tales and give them visual representation–a gesture, the color of the light, a costume, a chance expression–in order to produce an image that feels both knowing and right. The second constraint may be the more important one. Leibovitz, after all, works for editors at glossy magazines who spend their days wrangling celebrities onto their pages. Celebrities demand flattering representation as the price of their cooperation, and no one is better at flattering in a sophisticated yet intimate way than Leibovitz. Should she ever stop making her celebrity subjects look good, her career would quickly come to an end.

Nonetheless, this troubling collusion of photography and social hierarchy (for fame is well on its way to replacing class as the determining factor of status in America) is exactly the sort of thing you’d expect Susan Sontag to hold forth about with brilliance and insight. And she does, too, just not in her introduction, a disconnected series of meditations on what a collection of photographs of women might tell us in this day and age. (Very little, she is finally forced to admit.) Only in one clause does Sontag hint at the conditions underlying the book–“today’s hugely complex fashion-and-photography system,” she calls it–but the topic at hand is something else, and she veers away. Leibovitz, after all, is her very dear friend, and this is a coffee-table book, not a work of criticism. But consider what a younger, sharper-tongued Sontag might have written. This is her from On Photography, a collection of essays published during the 1970s. The subject was August Sander, a 1920s photographer who also set out to catalogue a large category of people, in his case Germans, but you could substitute Leibovitz for Sander and come out with an apt reading:

Sander’s social sample is unusually, conscientiously broad. He includes bureaucrats and peasants, servants and society ladies, factory workers and industrialists, soldiers and gypsies, actors and clerks. But such variety does not rule out class condescension. Sander’s eclectic style gives him away. Some photographs are casual, fluent, naturalistic; others are naïve and awkward. … Unself-consciously, Sander adjusted his style to the social rank of the person he was photographing. Professionals and the rich tend to be photographed indoors, without props. They speak for themselves. Laborers and derelicts are usually photographed in a setting (often outdoors) which locates them, which speaks for them–as if they could not be assumed to have the kinds of separate identities normally achieved in the middle and upper classes. … Sander’s complicity with everybody also means a distance from everybody. His complicity with his subjects is not naïve … but nihilistic.


Photographs are from
Women by Annie Leibovitz and Susan Sontag. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the White House, Washington, D.C. Shen Chu, Sewing machine operator, Four Maples Ladies’ Blouse Company, Chinatown, New York City.