Public Hospital, 2003
Good grief! It seems like I can't turn around lately without finding some kind of relevant link to a more accomplished artist. I’m beginning to wonder whether I’ve embarked on a moment of spiritual trancendence, or maybe I’ve died and don’t know it? I can feel it when I pinch my arm, though, and the neighbors spoke to me last night. So I‘m pretty sure I’m still among the breathing.
In the opinion pages of this past Sunday's New York Times, writer and former House & Garden editor Dominique Browning interviewed celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz about the latter’s new book of contemplative photographs.
Leibovitz' financial problems have been so great and involved so many tens of millions of dollars that attempts to resolve the debt have been the stuff of even local newspapers over the past six months. At one point last summer, Ms. Leibovitz had defaulted on such large debt that there was a very good chance that she’d lose her entire photo archive and just about every other piece of personal property and real estate she owns.
Let's not feel but so sorry, though. Leibovitz lives well, travels in fast company and spent her wealth on very pricey real estate, including a historic carriage house in Manhattan’s West Vilage and a 220-acre country place in Rhinebeck County, New York, that used to belong to the Astors.
What really caught my eye about Browning’s observations, though, was its focus on how Leibovitz' new book—from a photographer so well known for her portraits of rock and movie stars, politicians and even the Queen of England—doesn’t include a single photo of a person. Instead, the photographs are all of things that belonged to famous people, in this case dead people. There’s Virginia’s Woolf's writing desktop, Charles Darwin's specimen collection, Abraham Lincoln's top hat and the view from Emily Dickinson's bedroom window.
Leibovitz explains that this book was a challenge because she’s always had her subjects right in front of her and never had to consider how inanimate objects could be surrogates for people (unless you count the minions she uses as stand-ins for celebrities when she’s planning the lighting for her portraits).
Well, I've got a bone to pick with poor Ms. Leibovitz! I never had real live celebrity subjects in front of me unless you count that brush-by from Blake Lively a few months ago, and at the time I didn’t even know it was her brushing past me wearing little more than a bath towel. Anyway, I never took pictures of celebrities for Rolling Stone or Vanity Fair. Things are all I’ve had to work with. I've been shooting things as surrogates for people for a long time.
One of my best examples of this genre is "Public Hospital," above, which inroduces us to the room of an unknown patient at the nation's first public mental health hospital, in Williamsburg, Virginia. We have no idea who the patient was since the moment in history portrayed is a day in 1764. But the items in this room give us a sense of what the person might have been like.
And just for the record, my budget for this picture was probably $25,000 less than Ms. Leibovitz’s typical production budget, and she can’t even blame her misfortune on Bernie Madoff.