My time with Susan
From the outside, it looked like an odd relationship - Annie Leibovitz, celebrity photographer, and Susan Sontag, writer and intellect. Yet they were a couple for 15 years, travelling the world and sharing their lives. Now Leibovitz has put together her images of Sontag in a book to tell their story. Interview by Emma Brockes
Saturday October 7, 2006
'The closest word is still "friend"'... Annie Leibovitz on Susan
Sontag. Photograph: Michael Probst/AP
Over the course of their 15-year friendship, Susan Sontag would often complain to Annie Leibovitz that, despite being one of the most famous photographers in the world, she never took any pictures whenever they went out together. It's a complaint that Leibovitz has had cause to look back on, lately, as a grim kind of irony: during the last weeks of Sontag's life, Leibovitz forced herself to take photographs and now, nearly two years after her friend's death, she has published them in a book. There will be some who think she should not have done.
Article continues A Photographer's Life: 1990-2005 is Leibovitz's photographic account of the years during which the two women knew each other, and the pictures are both personal, of her parents, siblings and children, and professional - of Demi Moore, Arnold Schwarzenegger and the other Hollywood stars Leibovitz shot for the cover of Vanity Fair - as well as landscapes, war reportage and portraits of the unfamous. Interspersed are pictures of Sontag and herself as they travelled around the world together, at their flat in Paris and their homes in New York, where they lived in apartments directly opposite each other. In public at least, they never referred to themselves as a couple. "Words like 'companion' and 'partner' were not in our vocabulary," Leibovitz says. "We were two people who helped each other through our lives. The closest word is still 'friend'."
We are in Leibovitz's office in New York and she exudes a kinetic energy that takes her to the window and back several times; her hair's kind of crazy and there's a heft to her that for some reason makes me think she's the sort of person who, if her bag were snatched in the street, would sprint after the thief and snatch it right back. She is not long returned from her most recent, hugely publicised shoot of Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes and their baby at their ranch in Colorado. (Leibovitz wanted the whole family, including the in-laws, to be included in the photographs, but "Tom wanted it to be about the baby... It was his call and I wanted him to be happy.") An article in the New York Times suggested the whole thing was in bad taste and not up to Leibovitz's high standard, to which she snappishly responds, "You know, they are baby pictures. That is what they are."
From the outside it looked like an odd match: Leibovitz's movie-star razzle and Sontag's literary seriousness. But Leibovitz says that although Sontag loved a nine-hour German documentary as much as the next intellectual, it was she who would drag Leibovitz to see cheesy films starring Keanu Reeves, rather than the other way round. Some of the most moving photographs in the book show a different side to Sontag, a side "where you see her vulnerability. Everyone thinks she was so strong, and she was, but she was also very vulnerable. When I walked into the apartment where I first met her, she had these little collections of rocks and shells." There is a photograph of the round, smooth pebbles from Sontag's collection that appears in the book just after pictures of her death. "They become symbolic, of course, because..." Leibovitz's voice dies. "For obvious reasons."
The two met at a photo shoot in 1988, when Leibovitz took publicity pictures for Sontag's book, Aids And Its Metaphors. Leibovitz was 39, Sontag 55. "She was just the person I wanted to meet, at the right time," Leibovitz says, which is to say someone who by virtue of her own extraordinary qualities would encourage Leibovitz to be the best that she could be. They admired each other's ambition. They made each other laugh. "It was this wonderful moment."
Leibovitz grew up one of six children. Her father was in the air force, her mother was a housewife and teacher, and if she talks loudly and is impatient then it is partly, she says, due to this large and noisy family background. After school, she enrolled as an art student at the San Francisco Art Institute and signed up for a module in photography. Leibovitz wasn't yet 20 when she sent some examples of her work to Rolling Stone and was hired on the spot by the art director. She would work at the magazine for the next 13 years, going on the road with the biggest bands, exploiting her youth and talent for unobtrusiveness to get the best access. By the early 1980s she was ready to move on and Vanity Fair had the polish, and the budget, to win her.
The move to Vanity Fair brought with it new frustrations. Leibovitz was used to working alone. Now she had whole studios of people at her disposal and she found it cumbersome. Although her working manner is mild and thoughtful, she has been known to yell at people, for example when a studio assistant fails to read her mind. A friend once told her she had anger issues and Leibovitz concedes that this may well have been the case, once, but that she has definitely improved; having children, she says, has forced patience on her.
Within weeks of Sontag's death, Leibovitz's father died of lung cancer and there are photographs of him in the book, too, which bear a weird resemblance to those of Sontag in her last days, as if to prove a point about the democracy of death. The book, she says, "came out of grief". But it came out of life, also; Leibovitz gave birth to her daughter Sarah in 2001, with Sontag at her hospital bedside. After Sontag's death in December 2004, she had twins Susan and Samuelle - her father's name was Samuel - with the aid of a surrogate mother. The book is therefore "about life and the life cycle". It has a moral force to it.
In the early days of their relationship, Sontag was ambivalent about Leibovitz's desire to have children. "I think she wanted me to herself. I think she didn't think I was serious enough. 'Let's talk about it when you're serious about it,' she would say. And I made a decision myself to have children and then she was very supportive. But it took me making my own decision. She loved Sarah. She just loved Sarah."
Leibovitz was 51 when Sarah was born. She never intended to wait that long, she says, but the time flew by and she was always absorbed in her work. Her own parents supported her decision to have a baby and, because she lived in New York, she was insulated from a certain amount of the disapproval directed at mothers of her age. It's still taboo, though, and I wonder if she feels it.
" Oh, I've given up feeling... I mean, I've broken so many of those things, although I feel very conventional in some ways." She imagines that one day her children will rage at her for their unconventional beginnings and she hopes, if they do, it will be helpful for them to have each other. Second time round, she says, "I felt a little stupid that I didn't consider it might be twins, because with in vitro [fertilisation], multiple birth is very common. I remember my mother rang me up and said, how are you going to cope and I said, I'm not going to. I mean, it's going to be terrible for the first five years. But there's a picture in the book of Sarah and Susan, and that says it all. She's just holding that baby and she's so proud."
Leibovitz was by Sontag's bedside when she was receiving treatment for cancer. The hardest photos in the book relate to these times, and before deciding to publish them, Leibovitz consulted a small circle of Sontag's friends. There was controversy within the group, but in the end they supported a decision to publish. Leibovitz wanted to show what illness looks like and what courage looks like, too. "She didn't want to die. She put up... She wanted to live. She wanted to write more books. That last year of her life, she fought this fight, it was unbelievable. And she was so brave. It was amazing. It was too much. 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." She pauses. "Susan loved the good fight. And there's no doubt in my mind - and I do this as if she was standing behind me - that she would be championing this work."
Leibovitz's great regret is that she wasn't there when Sontag died. By that stage, late 2004, she was shuttling between Sontag's bedside and that of her desperately ill father in Florida. The day she left her, Sontag was looking rough, but she was undergoing last-minute chemotherapy and Leibovitz had seen her that sick before. "And so I kissed her goodbye and I said I love you and she said I love you." Hours later, as she walked through the door in Florida with Sarah, anxious to settle the little girl down, she got a call from David, Sontag's son, saying that it didn't look good and she should come straight back. "I said, 'Do you think I can take the first flight in the morning?' And he said, 'Yes, yes, I think that'd be fine. We have time.' I was in the airport waiting [the next morning] and they called me to say she had died. And they kept her there for me. But she was gone." Leibovitz told the undertaker, "I don't want any make-up on her. I don't want any of that crap." She took a photograph of Sontag lying on the gurney, bruises from an IV still vivid on her arms.
It wasn't until some time afterwards that she started looking through photographs. Leibovitz wanted to put together a memorial book to give to friends and family, and started finding images she didn't know she had. The meaning of a photograph changes when the person in it dies, and so it was that she started to see shapes forming and a line coming together. The opening photograph in the book is of Sontag standing in a canyon in Jordan, a tiny figure surrounded by darkness, looking out towards the light. "I was using her for scale, but it became a symbolic picture of Susan and her love of travel and civilisation and nature and art." If, as Sontag complained, Leibovitz skimped on taking photographs during the normal run of things, it was because "the more you know about someone, the harder it is to take. It has to do with knowing how they imagine they see themselves. And I think that when you love them, you don't want to disappoint them."
Leibovitz sold the New York apartment that overlooked Sontag's and is selling their apartment in Paris. But she is as in demand as ever and the work goes on. "The moment I put this book together, I felt such a sense of strength and something from Susan, something Susan gave me from her death. And she is still giving me things. It's funny because - although in the end she wanted her diaries published - Susan always said she felt that art really had to rise above the personal." Leibovitz disagrees.
· A Photographer's Life: 1990-2005, by Annie Leibovitz, will be published by Jonathan Cape on October 19 at £60. To order a copy for £48, with free mainland UK p&p, call 0870 836 0875.
30.12.2004: For the love of thought: tributes to Susan Sontag
29.12.2004: Obituary: Susan Sontag
29.12.2004: Susan Sontag dies aged 71Advertiser links
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