Even if you don't know her name, you know her work. Annie Leibovitz is one of the premier American photographers of the last 50 years, a woman whose images have decorated the covers of countless magazines and art gallery walls, someone synonymous with celebrity and, occasionally, controversy. (Earlier in 2008, some photos of teen star Miley Cyrus that Leibovitz snapped for "Vanity Fair" magazine made headlines for supposed sexual overtones.) Hers is a body of work that stands alongside the greats of the field: Richard Avedon, Herb Ritts or Mark Seliger.
Yet for all of her public visibility, relatively little is known about Leibovitz, something the documentary Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens, aims to change. Originally produced for the PBS series "American Masters" and directed by Leibovitz's sister Barbara, this woefully short (83 minutes) glimpse at the private and professional lives of a famous photographer only scratches the surface. A glittering roster of talking heads (Anna Wintour, Graydon Carter, Keith Richards and Hillary Rodham Clinton, to name a few) hold forth on what Annie and her art mean, while a handful of critics and co-workers flesh out more general details about the impact she has had.
Threaded throughout the film are nuggets of personal insight from Annie, along with looks at her family and poignant anecdotes about the late writer Susan Sontag, the most significant relationship of her life. But for all that Leibovitz shares, you're left at the film's conclusion not knowing much more than you did at its beginning. Leibovitz hangs out with lots of fabulous, famous folks, takes photographs that often define their subjects and apparently has had little trouble carving out a professionally and artistically satisfying career.
Given that Leibovitz's sister directed the film, you'd think the photographer would be a bit more open, sharing more of herself and bringing to bear the same gift she seems to have at eliciting revelatory moments from others. Perhaps she's too well-practiced at procuring rather than sharing intimacies, but Life Through a Lens is the poorer for it. As is, the film is little more than a very handsomely mounted hagiography of one of America's foremost photographers, a shiny, ultimately empty, document of a woman and her work.
Presented in a non-anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen transfer (how does a documentary so dependent upon images land on a non-anamorphic DVD?), Life Through a Lens is acceptable throughout, mixing newly filmed footage, interview segments and archival footage with no discernible flaws, other than those inherent in any source material. What should arguably sparkle is merely OK.
Being an interview-driven film, the Dolby 2.0 stereo track doesn't have much to do beyond conveying dialogue clearly and cleanly, which it does, along with making sure the Gaili Schoen score fills in appropriately. A solid aural representation that has no discernible flaws. Optional English subtitles are included.
Supplements are worth sifting through only for die-hard Leibovitz fans -- each of the five featurettes (the 34 minute, nine second "Photo Stories"; the four minute, 52 second "Process"; the five minute, 10 second "Commercial Work"; the six minute, 22 second "Celebrity"; the six minute, 57 second "Work Ethic" and the one minute, 46 second "Fashion") are comprised of accordingly grouped interviews not glimpsed in the finished film.
Given that acclaimed photographer Annie Leibovitz's sister Barbara directed Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens, you'd think the photographer would be a bit more open, sharing more of herself and bringing to bear the same gift she seems to have at eliciting revelatory moments from others. Perhaps she's too well-practiced at procuring rather than sharing intimacies, but Life Through a Lens is the poorer for it. As is, the film is little more than a very handsomely mounted hagiography of one of America's foremost photographers, a shiny, ultimately empty, document of a woman and her work. Rent it.