Loving the intimacy of nude portraits

Nudity is one of Annie Leibovitz’s (above) favourite tools of portraiture.

Veteran photographer Annie Leibovitz is taking on a new challenge this summer: learning to use the cellphone camera. She has yet to master the selfie or other forms of photo-sharing on social media.

"I don't have anything against it, but I don't want to misuse it, I know how powerful it is," says the 64-year-old, who joined Facebook only in February and jokes about "instantly regretting it".

She spoke to Life! yesterday during a one-day visit to Singapore to check on her new exhibition opening on April 18 at the ArtScience Museum. About 190 photographs from her personal and professional collection are on display till Oct 19, in a show titled Annie Leibovitz A Photographer's Life 1990-2005.

The travelling exhibition debuted at Brooklyn Museum in New York in 2006 and the images are collected in a book of the same name, published by Random House and retailing here at bookstores and the Artscience Museum for $99.

On display are some of her stunning portraits of political leaders and Hollywood stars, including the famous nude shot of a pregnant Demi Moore which was the controversial August 1991 cover of Vanity Fair magazine. Next to it hangs an earlier black-and-white photograph of Moore during her first pregnancy in 1988, cradled by former husband Bruce Willis.

There are images of war-torn Bosnia and Rwanda from Leibovitz's few stints at reportage and smaller pictures of her family, including her late parents at the beach and her three daughters - Sarah, 13 and 11-year-old twins Susan and Samuelle. "I'm raising three girls and I don't know how to wear a dress," says the photographer, dressed in black pants and shirt, a Canon camera around her neck.

As media photographers crowd around for a shoot, she matches them snap for snap, joking about a new series of photos of those who photograph her.

She says: "I wanted to be a journalist. I love Life magazine, I think I have a journalistic streak in me, when you take a picture you want to tell a story. But I felt there was a lot more latitude in portraiture and you could be conceptual. I felt I had a stronger voice with a point of view.

"I think at this point of my life, I feel I'm more a conceptual artist using photography more than I'm a photographer. Photography is big, there are lots of ways to use it."

Her portraits are indeed unforgettable, some might find them outrageous. There was the April 2008 photo-spread of then 15-year-old Miley Cyrus in only a bedsheet, slammed for sexualising a young girl. A bare-chested Neil Patrick Harris holding large snakes for the current May cover of magazine Vanity Fair is prompting puns about "trouser snakes".

"That was a little gem of a shooting, to see him push himself," says Leibovitz, laughing. Nudity is one of her favourite tools of portraiture. "With my dance background, I do like the body and I like the shape of the body."

She is the third of six children. Her father Samuel was a US air force officer and mother Marilyn a dance instructor. Leibovitz took dance lessons as a child and studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. There she was exposed to the work of photographers Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson, switched her focus and began shooting for Rolling Stone magazine while still a student.

Her first assignment was to photograph John Lennon of The Beatles. Ten years later, in 1980, another picture she took of him, nude and curled up beside his clothed wife Yoko Ono, became immortalised as it was shot just hours before he was killed by a gunman.

"When you take a still or a portrait, there is a sense of intimacy if they don't have their clothes on. Mick Jagger in the 1970s, you couldn't imagine him with his shirt on, it wasn't such a big deal not having clothes on. It's just part of portraiture," she says.

Often, her subjects set the tone: Sting took off his clothes at a desert shoot for Time magazine and she had to ask him to put them back on.

The first nudes she did were for a Pirelli calendar featuring the Mark Morris Dance Group. "They loved their bodies, they didn't care, they were beautiful. I was more embarrassed. I didn't quite know what to do with myself, I had never done a straightforward nude."

Among the more poignant pictures in this retrospective, the second after Photographs: 1970-1990, are studies of her longtime companion, writer Susan Sontag, who died of cancer in 2004. The photographer captured Sontag through various stages of her illness and, a few weeks after the writer's funeral, shot her dying father's last moments on camera.

A Photographer's Life 1990-2005 became part of the grieving and healing process, Leibovitz says, just as retrospectives help her take stock of her life and work.

"Photographs: 1970-1990 was a big revelation. It made me long to be young and have that kind of innocence where you go out and take pictures and you're just shooting," she says.

"With this work, I kind of came of age. It was very liberating because it brought the personal into the realm of the assignment work. It's really who I am, what I like to do."

Though Sontag in 1977 wrote disparagingly about amateur photographers causing a flood of visual information, Leibovitz loves the ubiquity of the cellphone camera even if she cannot quite use it yet. "It's just beautiful when I see someone like (actress) Vanessa

Redgrave pull her iPhone out and show me pictures of her grandchildren. It's really the new wallet holding family pictures."

Leibovitz has bought three different cellphones to test camera capabilities but refuses to reveal the brands lest she be accused of endorsing one maker over others.

So will her next show be online on Instagram? "I don't know. I have to work on that a little bit," she says with a laugh. "I can't wait until the day they put a chip in the body and you don't have to hold a camera anymore."

This article was published on April 17 in The Straits Times.

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