It was inevitable perhaps, that the woman who wrote On Photography should have her life - and death - presented to the world in photographs. Considering that Susan Sontag spent the last 15 years of her life with Annie Leibovitz, a photographer who took artifice to new levels with her celebrity photographs for the lavish covers and pages of Vanity Fair magazine - it was made more likely that Sontag would suffer the fate that’s now hers in death. Those who thought Sontag and Leibovitz were an unlikely pairing will feel vindicated somewhat.
When Susan Sontag died in late 2004, I was reading possibly her last book, Regarding the Pain of Others, in which she discussed war photography. “To catch a death actually happening and embalm it for all time is something only cameras can do,” she wrote. Leibovitz may have sought to prove the point. A Photographer’s Life, 1990-2005 - covers the years the two women shared together. Although it’s ostensibly about Leibovitz’s life, the book's main selling points are never before seen photos of Sontag.
Some of the photographs were in The Guardian (UK) Weekend Magazine of 7th October. We see a naked Sontag, only partially covered by her duvet, asleep, pubic hair one breast in view. We see her receiving chemotherapy; barely recognisable as she neared death; and we see her in a series of photographs - dead. Of course we also see Leibovitz herself in a not so glossy version of her famous study of a pregnant Demi Moore, but the photographer has made the choice to show this to the world. Sontag cannot decide. She may have discussed the “democracy of photographs” in life, but even she could not have imagined it would go this far. Of the photographs in Weekend, my favourite is the least invasive, showing Sontag and a companion as tiny features on a pyramid in Giza, Egypt. Of the more intimate images, one cannot but wonder if this is how we would want to remember an intellect like Sontag, her relationship with Leibovitz notwithstanding.
There are reports of controversy in a small circle Sontag’s friends, on learning of the photographer’s plans to publish. In the end, they supported the decision; you get the feeling they couldn’t have stopped Leibovitz anyway. The photographer says: "There's this question: how can you publish these pictures? Well, you could never publish them while she was alive. But she's dead. And that's the bottom line."
You've got to give Leibovitz top marks for directness, even if you think there's something chilling about the finality with which she lays down the 'bottom line'.
Annie Leibovitz’s book is published this month and a copy will set you back £60.
In Weekend edition of 14th October, a reader, Stefan Nedu, had sent the following letter in from Bolton, UK:
“Annie Leibovitz’s decision to publish intimate photographs of Susan Sontag is distasteful… Thanks to Leibovitz, my mind now associates [Sontag] with a soggy nipple and bruises on a corpse. Commercialism makes some people sell not only their own souls, but also their best friend’s.”
My thoughts exactly.
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- Vanity Fair (on whose pages Leibovitz did her most significant work, becoming not only a photographer of superstars but also a 'superstar photographer' in her own right) naturally carries news of Leibovitz's book on p235. Happily, the magazine leaves all photos of Sontag be, showing instead the deceased's snapshot of a naked and pregnant Leibovitz.
- Vanity Fair's UK edition does not have Suri Cruise (whose existence many once doubted) on its cover. Instead, we have the delectable Goerge Clooney and there's many pages on him inside. He is written of - and one sees where they are coming from - as the only current Hollywood star who evokes Clark Gable, Cary Grant and a few other immortals - depending on the setting. Clooney's self-effacing and natural sense of humour definitely reminds one of Cary Grant who also combined these qualities with devastating handsomeness. The Clark Gable thing hit me when I saw O Brother, Where Art Thou? many years ago, especially the scene in which he tells his doubting daughters: "I'm the damned pater familias!"
- Staying with Clooney, London Lite (a new free evening newpspaper that's fast catching on) carried a snippet on the actress Ellen Barkin on its 19th October edition. Asked about rumours of an affair with Clooney, Barkin replied: "Yes I f***** George... and I'm proud of it! If you don't have chemistry with George Clooney you need to check your pulse."