12a. Annie Leibovitz

I happened to be in the city yesterday and I decided to visit the Annie Leibovitz exhibition, which has been showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art [MCA] since late last year but, for a variety of reasons, I hadn’t yet seen. By the time I had finished the business that took me to the city and walked down to Circular Quay where the museum is located, it was just after noon; but when I went to the ticket counter, I was told that the Leibovitz exhibition was closed to the public until 2:00pm. The reason given was that a media event was taking place in the gallery; but I overheard, outside, that some big shot from New York was visiting. That “big shot” happened to be Annie Leibovitz herself, who had flown into Sydney on the strength of the outstanding success of her exhibition. Apparently it is the most popular ever staged by the MCA.

Should I wait; or come back another day? I decided to wait and headed back into the city to have some lunch and kill some time; then I returned at 2:00pm, bought my ticket and entered the gallery; along with many other visitors. I’m not going to rave on about the individual images because Leibovitz is probably one of the best-known photographers working at the moment, not only because she has photographed many famous people from musicians to movie stars and from politicians to at least one queen, but her body of work ranges from portraiture to landscape, fashion to intimate insights into her own life and even conflict photography; and it is one example from the conflict category that I want to bring to your attention.

This B&W image, of a bicycle, lying on the ground, beside some sort of stain has, from a purely pictorial viewpoint, a certain grace and a strong sense of movement but does not seem (to me, at least) all that remarkable. But when I read the story of the image, helpfully written on a card to one side, a shivver ran down my spine. If you do not want to know that story, please read no further.


The image was taken in Sarajevo in 1994, during the conflict engulfing the former Yugoslavia at that time. Leibovitz was on assignment, en route to photograph Miss Sarajevo when a teenage boy, riding a bicycle, was struck by a mortar shell right in front of her car. She sent the boy to the hospital in her car but he was dead before he got there; so she photographed the bicycle with the stain alongside caused by his blood.

Some viewers may not want to know this. They might prefer to view the image purely pictorially. Or they might prefer to make up their own interpretation of the story behind the scene. Perhaps the truth is just too horrific for some. But Annie Leibovitz herself felt that the context of the shot was important enough for people to know. No one was forced to read the card. But it was there, for anyone who wanted to.

Everyone approaches photography and the appreciation of photographs in his or her own way; and each one is absolutely entitled to do so. Therefore, when I asked, in my previous post, if images should be able to speak for themselves without contextual explanation, I was expecting different opinions; and that’s what I got. Hopefully, by writing the post, I gave readers encouragement to think about their own point of view on the subject and share it, thus enriching the discussion.


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