Saturday, September 22, 2007

Life Through a Lens

As I hope to make a documentary on photographers in the near future (details soon), I've started watching all the photography-related docs I can. Last night's was Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens from the American Masters series. It was very good, and I enjoyed it, but I was left with two questions.

It's directed by Barbara Leibovitz. While the idea of a documentary Director with a connection to the film's subject is not uncommon at all -- think of Nathaniel Kahn in My Architect or Lucia Small in My Father, the Genius -- generally these are cases where the Director is "out" and obvious and often referenced in the film, amounting to a character in the drama.

Barbara is Annie's sister. While the documentary doesn't reference this, the PBS site about the film does:

Given unrestricted access, director Barbara Leibovitz spent a year documenting Annie Leibovitz at home and at work. "As her sister, I feel a serious responsibility not only to tell her story - but to tell it honestly," says Barbara Leibovitz, a writer, director and producer of award-winning documentaries. "It was a challenge, but I learned more about my sister than I ever imagined."
I'm not certain, though, that the audience did.

The implication that Leibovitz is our greatest living photographer goes unchallenged, with only Vicki Goldberg standing in to represent the art world, and tossing out two zingers in the midst of much fawning praise. I would love to have heard Leibovitz on the subject of where she thinks her work stands within the field.

While there are "honest" references to Leibovitz participating in the drug scene while following a Rolling Stones concert tour and eventually entering a rehab program, the tone of that section of the film is mild and vague. Do people enter rehab without major issues and problems? Does one imagine the specifics are known and could be told? Are we left dining at the children's table, unable to overhear the adults talking?

Is unrestricted access important if there are large questions left unaddressed in a film that purports to represent a person's life?


Anonymous said...

Ted, I had a chance to view this episode on American Masters a couple of months ago and had the exact same experience. Enjoyed it, but left wanting. I thought in many ways it was a 'pretty portrait', loving and respectful - much like what a sister would do for another sister. It also felt like she was more interested in cramming in the breadth of Annie's pop culture experience, as oppossed to addressing the guts of her journey as an artist.

T.O. misses you! Hope you are well.

Ted Fisher said...

Exactly. Think of the questions that would have been asked if this was developed by an unknown director: what's the main character's journey? what's she struggling against? what's she trying to do?

That would have been a very different piece.