By Annie Leibovitz
Random House, 240 pages, November, 2008, $40
The other photographers snapped their pictures of the pomp and circumstance surrounding the outgoing president as he boarded his helicopter, Marine One, officially marked “United States of America.” But Annie Leibovitz took a different approach to her photo of the 37th president – the only one to resign in office.
The book is a how-to guide of sorts for aspiring photographers, with a “Ten Most-Asked Questions” section at the end. The first question touches on Leibovitz’s advice to a young photographer. “I’ve said about a million times that the best thing a young photographer can do is to stay close to home,” Leibovitz answers. “Of course there are many good photographs that have nothing to do with staying close to home, and I guess what I’m really saying is that you should take pictures of something that has meaning to you.”
Leibovitz hints in the book to her Jewish heritage. She lived on a kibbutz in Israel in 1969 and studied Hebrew, and she covered the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 for Rolling Stone. In the book, Leibovitz remembers traveling through the war zone into Beirut with a writer and being very disturbed by the ways other photographers covered the war.
In an interview, Annie’s brother, Phil Leibovitz, who lives in Bethesda, Md., said that Annie’s religious identity actually does inform her work. The two grew up in Silver Spring, Md., on a street where half of the families were Orthodox, Phil estimated. The Young Israel, where Rabbi Gedaliah Anemer remains the rabbi, was on the same street.
One way that living in Silver Spring might have impacted Annie’s work, Phil said, was that one of her art teachers at Northwood High School told her she would never be an artist. “Maybe it was a motivator,” he said.
Several of the photographs in Leibovitz’s previous book, Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life: 1990-2000 feature her parents and family in Silver Spring. “My parents renewing their marriage vows, Washington, D.C.” (1992) shows the guests of honor sitting to the right, surrounded by family and friends in a ballroom. Annie’s father wears a kippa. In a later series, “Judean Memorial Gardens, Olney, Maryland” (February 6, 2005), Leibovitz photographed her father Samuel’s military funeral. Per the Jewish custom, mourners throw fistfuls of dirt over the grave.
It is hard to say whether photographs of kibbutz orchards, Jewish funerals, and Israeli politicians amount to Jewish art. There do not seem to be any direct quotes from Leibovitz about whether her Jewish identity – however she defines it – informs her photographs, or even a specific body of works. Even if there was such a quote, the artist does not necessarily get to have the final word, even on her own work. And yet, Leibovitz’s time on the kibbutz does seem to have impacted her in a meaningful way. It might not have shaped her photographic vision as much as Hunter Thompson or Tom Wolfe did, but perhaps enough, that Jewish viewers who seek Jewish content and themes in her work are not merely projecting.
Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at email@example.com. He is a painter and writer, and resides in Washington, D.C.Menachem Wecker
About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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