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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


I still remember the picture from when I was an adolescent. Early 80's. Rolling Stone magazine. John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in their guises as Jake and Elwood Blues, their faces painted an appropriate shade of blue. Annie Leibovitz took that picture, and seeing it was the moment I realized that a photograph could be something more than the kind of static portraiture that you found in school yearbooks or picture frames above the mantle. It had concept, it had character, and it expressed something about its subjects. From that moment on, I looked at photos differently, knowing the revelatory power they could possess when the right person was behind the camera.

Annie Leibovitz has been one of those right people since the 1960's. Her extraordinary career is celebrated in a new DVD called Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens, available from Warner Home Video. The documentary attempts to do for the famous photographer what she does for those who sit before her: provide a glimpse behind the surface.

Leibovitz, who cooperated fully with the production, talks about growing up in a home where her mother recorded everything for posterity. Therefore, the presence of cameras seemed natural to her. In the 60's, she knocked on the door of Rolling Stone, samples in hand, and was hired by publisher Jann Wenner. That offered opportunities to photograph some of the world's most famous rock stars. But Leibovitz didn't just take their pictures; she spent time with the artists, getting to know their essence, and then orchestrating photo shoots designed to bring that out. When she spent several weeks touring with the Rolling Stones (against Wenner's advice), she brought back images of the band that are still iconic to this day.

The 70's and 80's saw Leibovitz veer away from the verite' style she initially employed and move toward conceptual portraiture. Not coincidentally, she moved from Rolling Stone to the more upscale Vanity Fair around this same time. Photographing movie stars, political leaders, and everyone in between, she developed an inimitable, multi-layered visual sense. Looked at one way, her pictures were strikingly beautiful; in another, they cleverly revealed things about the people in them. During a press tour for her movie The Rose, Bette Midler was snapped lying in a bed of roses. Leibovitz not only took a pretty picture, but she also managed to capture the essence of a young performer on the cusp of a professional and creative breakthrough.

Leibovitz never shied away from controversy, and Life Through a Lens devotes time to some of her more notorious images, particularly the now-famous nude-and-pregnant Vanity Fair shot of Demi Moore that created a sensation in the 90's. The documentary does a nice job of reminding us that Annie Leibovitz's pictures have been so influential as to enter the national consciousness, as this one did.

In addition to tracing her professional arc (including a recent return to more naturalistic, fly-on-the-wall photos), Life Through a Lens also looks at Leibovitz's drug addiction and subsequent recovery, her children, and her relationship with the late writer Susan Sontag. The movie grows unexpectedly poignant toward the end, as Leibovitz talks about how taking pictures of her lover during illness and death helped her to cope with an immeasurable loss.

Supplementing interviews with the subject herself are clips of a few of her more famous subjects, including Hilary Rodham Clinton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Whoopi Goldberg (who was snapped in a bathtub full of milk to symbolize the way she broke through racial barriers in the early days of her career). There are also some scenes showing Leibovitz at work, going a Vanity Fair shoot with Kirsten Dunst and Jason Schwartzman to promote their film Marie Antoinette. Watching her work is fascinating because you can feel all the energy and creativity that infiltrates her camera and comes out fully exposed on film.

Annie Leibovitz: Life Behind a Lens was originally broadcast on PBS as part of its "American Masters" series in 2006, and is available on DVD beginning October 28. Special features on the disc include over one hour of never-before-seen bonus interviews from the aforementioned subjects. The famous faces recount in even greater detail what it was like to pose for Leibovitz, and their recollections are organized into thematic exhibition galleries: Process, Celebrity, Commercial Work, Fashion, Photo Stories, and Work Ethic.

If you've ever picked up a magazine, odds are you have seen an Annie Leibovitz photo. Life Through a Lens does an excellent job of showing what goes into those pictures and how this extraordinarily talented woman came to the forefront of modern photography.

( 1/2 out of four)

Check out the official website: Warner Home Video

Or purchase it online here

Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens - Own it on DVD October 28

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