independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

Annie sees life through a different lens and risked it all for perfection

Hannah Montana left childhood forever when Miley Cyrus met Annie Leibovitz. The woman who snapped a naked and pregnant Demi Moore, John and Yoko -- and an exceptionally majestic Queen Elizabeth -- portrayed 15-year-old Miley in a moment between innocence and eros.

It made the cover of June 2008's Vanity Fair.

Hair tumbling over bare shoulder, skin bathed in light, Miley's sensual image provoked complaints from some Disney executives and (surprise) the religious right. But what did they expect from the legendary lenswoman? By Annie's standards, it was almost tame.

The controversy was nothing compared to Leibovitz's current trials. If she doesn't repay $24m by Tuesday, September 8, she risks losing her homes -- and the rights to her high-achieving life's work.

In a contemporary twist on Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, Leibovitz's troubles are being raised to the status of American morality tale by a culture obsessed with money and how to keep it, especially now.

Is she a great artist who can't deal with the everyday? A careless dreamer who thought that if the surface works, the rest must follow? Or just plain greedy?

The scandal of her financial woes is a writ-large study of what's happening to thousands stuck in the debt trap, after putting so much faith in credit they believed it would never let them down. A more nasty sub-text whispers the message 'schadenfreude', given Annie's epic success in ruthlessly competitive markets.

Her work is a once-off itinerary of popular culture since the late 1960s, when Connecticut-born Leibovitz began picturing the musicians and performers around her. Within three years, she was Chief Photographer at Rolling Stone, where the mix of politics with rock and roll -- Nixon, Bowie, Jagger, Iggy Pop -- sparked her cutting-edge-while-painterly style.

She was the silent eye at first, the pupil who studied celebrities with a Holbein-like attention, fastidiously noting a careless eyelash, a stubby hand, the trouser fold that measured the man. Richard Avedon was among her icons but Annie's desire for perfection extended to her subjects. They had to be as she wanted, which usually meant wiping their imperfections away.

Some of her exploits involved battles of stamina between her and them, as well as her crew. She met actor William Hurt one afternoon and eyeballed him until dawn the next day.

"Arnold Schwarzenegger still jokes about flying through a blizzard in a helicopter, then nearly freezing to death for the 1997 Vanity Fair cover image of him on skis on a mountain top in Sun Valley, Idaho," writes Andrew Goldman, in New York magazine.

By then, Annie was a celebrity herself, famous because of the people she snapped -- Uma Thurman, Brad Pitt, Hillary Clinton -- and her gold-plated brand was a must-have for rock, fashion and celebrity editors. Long hair, 6 foot tall, absolutely devoted to duty -- her striking image made her iconic. She didn't suffer anyone gladly and did anything to get a picture right.

War stories grew. Crew had to heat gallons of milk for her study of Whoopie Goldberg bathing Cleopatra-like. She flew an army to Versailles so she could use an authentic backdrop. Budgets? Nothing counted like the high of a perfect shot so editors indulged her, when they could afford her. She was earning big bucks but spending them as fast as they came.

The addiction to perfection had toxic undertones. She'd allegedly been a heavy cocaine user after touring with The Rolling Stones in the 70s but kicking her habits actually meant shifting them to other areas of her life. Her homes in Paris and New York were burnished, polished, immaculate. Everything and everyone had to be just so, as though only perfection could protect her from her fears.

Wanting to make her daughter Sarah's first birthday memorable, she flew Roseanne Cash to sing the infant's favourite lullaby. She'd given birth to Sarah in 2001, aged 51, and went on to have twin daughters by a surrogate in 2005. For years, her lover was writer and intellectual Susan Sontag but to Annie's despair, Sontag died in 2004; Annie's parents also passed away.

The morass she faces isn't all a result of profligacy but of unexpected inattention to detail from this empress of getting it right. Obsessed by her fear that her baby mightn't be nourished properly, she had to record every bite and bowel movement -- but not in any old notebook. Instead, she had the absolutely correct one couriered in from Sweden. It had to look right, whether it cost a dime or a million.

The camel's back broke when intense renovations in her New York home encountered a problem with foundations that caused the house next door to subside. She had to buy it and fix hers, at huge expense. She put all her debts together with a firm called Art Capital, who want the money back, or else.

Friends and sympathisers are rallying round Annie, who told fans at a Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony earlier this year that all she wants is to make better images than ever. One major financial agency is negotiating with Art Capital to take over some of the debt and set up a kinder repayment schedule.

This intense, anxious, mother of three children under eight will be 60 years of age in October. Sometimes the gifted deserve a break.

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