Annie Leibovitz at the Corcoran

Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life, 1990-2005 is at the Corcoran Gallery. It's been there since October. I was relieved to feel strong enough to go and see it yesterday. And I'm so very glad I did.

The images of her family intrigued me much more than the more well-known photographs of film stars and political figures. I subscribed to Vanity Fair. I'd seen them all. Even the ones of the Queen of England.

Perhaps because her companion, Susan Sontag, was a writer – I found myself looking closer at these images that captured a writer’s life - a library with bookshelves to the ceiling; Sontag, head close to another thinker, looking down together at something; two pads of paper and miscellaneous notes portrayed notes of thoughts – random but maybe not with connecting lines and boxes – on a desk; even a photograph from 1992 of an Apple SE, with words flickering on the screen. I'd not seen one of those in awhile and I thought of how that image already seem antique.

I fell in love with her mother – like me a former dancer, a lover of the ocean who grew up going to the Jersey shore. Her spirit leapt off the walls. There were lots of images of the family frolicking at the beach. Leibovitz decided to put several shots taken moments from each other together, so the effect was a slow moving film. Grandparents with grandchildren, aunts with cousins, children growing. These groups of still action were neat.

She spent time in Sarajevo and her photographs of that time, of the underground newspaper, of the streets, of men swimming and diving in a dam – showed life under siege, in war, going on. Most haunting of all was a bike, on its side on pavement, in a swirl of blood so that you could sense the bike’s movement as it fell. The liner notes said that the boy had been shot by a sniper, that she had taken him in her car to the hospital but that he had died on the way. You couldn’t not look again at the image and not be struck by sudden, random, unfair, wrong ends.

And then she captured the deteriorating bodies of her lover and her father. Sontag had cancer. These scenes of illness were too familiar to me. White sheets, machines, nakedness, plastic tubes, frightened or resigned eyes. Or a forced determination. To live, survive. You could read about their apartment in Paris and why they took it despite the fact that it was two stories up and Sontag could barely walk. You saw her being transported in a medical plane – outside in a windy cold – being wheeled in; the notes said it was a last effort, a trip to Seattle for a bone marrow transplant.

And then Sontag’s dead body – elaborately dressed but unmistakably dead. Leibovitz wrote of the process of illness, being in hospitals - “It’s humiliating . You lose yourself. And she loved to dress up.” And there she was.

That wall turned a corner to a series of images that recorded Leibovitz’s father’s death. He chose to die at home. The final image of living limbs in grief - twisted, tangled – the limbs apart from the faces as if the limbs lying there so expressed enough. They did.

I lifted my eyes from those small pictures on the wall and stepped to my right to head into the next room, the last room, and I felt stunned. This effect was clearly intentional, but no less powerful despite that self-consciousness. With the gray winter days, day after day – to see this gray – dark, deep and like a rich soil – moved me. And this background shade also provided sharp relief to the white walls of all the other previous galleries. And then there was the scale – massive. The photographs on the wall were printed and loomed large - at least 15 feet wide and 8 feet high, and they were all landscapes in shades of gray accented by a rosy light.

The emotional effect took me from the tiny details of the process of death to these earthly panoramas that offered such transcendent, heavenly beauty. This was not the romantic sentimentalism of a Turner painting, as beautiful as they are (and that I still hope to see at the National Gallery). The reality of these images made the sense that you were seeing God’s awesome beauty more potent. Japanese flowers floating, punchy in its pink and particularity. Two images of Venice portrayed water, shimmering and alive like ghosts.

And then - Monument Valley in Arizona – surely God’s granite playground. Leibovitz wrote about the weight of comparison she felt photographing this infamous locale: “I had booked a helicopter, but felt guilty because it seemed like cheating. And at the end of the very last day, I told myself that Ansel Adams would have rented a helicopter.”

I felt so small. My grief felt so small. I wept.

The exhibit closes on January 13th.