“Are you the biggest photographer in the world?” Chris Rock asks Annie Leibovitz, arguably the only snapper to be as famous as her sitters. That fame cuts both ways in her sister Barbara’s documentary, which asks but never answers the crucial question – is Leibovitz a star because of her mastery with the viewfinder, or because she uses it to celebrate stars? Instead, the film shows a straightforward chronicle of her life and career, from her early days at Rolling Stone to her current exalted status as Vanity Fair doyen. It’s punctuated by glowing tributes from the great and good (Mick Jagger, Hillary Clinton, Arnold Schwarzenegger) who have sat for her over the decades.
Annie’s true development, however, has been her progression from instinctive captor of the revealing moment – a haunting image of John Lennon, grabbed on the fly during the first of many encounters, or a snapshot photo essay on Nixon’s departure from the White House – to a conceptual artist whose elaborately posed tableaux images (comedienne Whoopi Goldberg emerging from a bath of milk, for example, or the infamous pic of Demi Moore’s naked pregnancy) have all the spontaneity of a well-rehearsed anecdote. Following her sibling as she snaps Kirsten Dunst on the Marie Antoinette set or Keira Knightley in a Wizard Of Oz mock-up, Barbara shows her to be a demanding and occasionally formidable taskmistress who always thinks, “I should have shot more”. No wonder Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter refers to her as “Barbra Streisand with a camera”.
Life Through A Lens is at its most focused when Leibovitz is reliving her relationship with Susan Sontag through the photos she took of the writer as she slowly succumbed to terminal cancer. (The director also takes pains to mention Annie’s no less harrowing trips to war zones in Sarajevo and Rwanda.) For all that, you can’t help feeling that the sniffy art critic who dismisses her as “the apex of a shabby celebrity culture” might just have a point.