|A Lasting Legacy
copyright © 2006
in The Guardian
2 December 2006
When Annie Leibovitz published A Photographer's
Life, I wasn't entirely sure that I would want to look at the
images of Susan Sontag in her final illness or, indeed, in death.
I had known Susan for almost exactly the period (1990-2005)
covered by the book. I know her son, David Rieff, and I know
Annie just a little, and have always felt for her rather strongly,
more strongly perhaps than you might think our acquaintance
justified, but there were reasons for this.
Annie says something marvellous in the introduction,
when explaining why she has mixed up personal photographs with
assignment work, family photographs with the kind of intimate
glamour shot (Brad Pitt on an untidy bed in Las Vegas, the pregnant
Demi Moore) at which she so excels. She writes: "I don't
have two lives, and the personal pictures and the assignment
work are all part of it." Well, it's true, and it's worth
remembering: none of us has two lives.
"When young photographers ask me what
to do," she says, "I always tell them to stay close
to home." Surprising advice, you might have thought, from
one so travelled, but this comes from part of her training at
San Francisco Art Institute, where "Personal reportage
was a prominent element in the curriculum then. You were supposed
to photograph things that meant something to you."
At the time that I first knew Susan in Berlin,
she and the photographer Nan Goldin had a good friend called
Alf Bold, a key figure in the Berlin film world, who was dying
of Aids. If you know Nan's photographs, you will know Alf's
face, for Nan was constantly visiting him in hospital and recorded
his decline. One year we assembled at Nan's Kreuzberg flat to
celebrate Thanksgiving and be close to Alf.
Annie was unable to attend, being on assignment,
but - with typical style, being one of the great providers and
enablers - she sent over an entire Thanksgiving dinner. I bought
a bunch of flowers, found a vase and put them on the table as
the meal was unpacked and we set it out. I have a vision of
Susan's face as it quickly became apparent that the vase of
flowers was too big for the table and was going to hinder conversation.
Outrage spread over her. I could see her thinking: who on earth
could have been so gross or so dumb as to put those flowers
in my line of vision? We're here for conversation, for heaven's
sake, not to look at some bunch of flowers. And then, before
I could remedy the mistake, she swept the flowers away with
a look and a gesture not far from fury.
If you weren't up for this kind of thing, if
it didn't make you laugh, then you would perhaps find Susan
hard-going. Voracious was a word she used about herself, and
she had a voracious appetite for talk, for information. What
had you been doing, what had you been reading, what did you
think - what did you really think - about art, music, books,
politics, things that mattered? Only what mattered mattered,
so it was a good idea to stick to what mattered.
The capacity for outrage was channelled to
noble (as opposed to comic) effect in her two essays about cancer
and about Aids. She observed that the way we thought about these
diseases was affected by the metaphors and imagery that we used,
and that this made things worse for us. We should examine the
language we used, and in doing so we should be able to extirpate
primitive and irrational feelings that were making our lives
more miserable than they need be.
These two original and highly characteristic
essays brought Susan into intimate contact with a kind of readership
she was perhaps unused to, but to which she responded generously:
fellow cancer sufferers who found her attitude inspiring. She
was in favour of what is no doubt much more common now than
then: patients researching their own diseases and their possible
cures, bringing rational curiosity to bear on their own condition.
During the same period, and knowing that she did not necessarily
have much time left, she fell out of love with herself as an
essayist and put all her writing effort into her novels, The
Volcano Lover and In America. She began to dislike hearing herself
referred to as an essayist, which seemed to me something of
a shame - as it is a shame when people who have written a popular
anthology poem take against their own most successful work.
But you could not grudge her the ambition to do something grand
in the period of remission she was so intensely living.
To see that period recorded through Annie's
camera never feels wrong, even up to the final shots of the
body laid out, dressed in the clothes Annie chose for it and
took to the funeral home, and which she describes in such detail:
"The dress is one we found in Milan. It's an homage to
Fortuny, made the way he made them, with pleated material. Susan
had a gold one and a green-blue one. She had been sick on and
off for several years, in the hospital for months. It's humiliating.
You lose yourself. And she loved to dress up. I brought the
scarves we had bought in Venice, and a black velvet Yeohlee
coat that she wore to the theatre. I was in a trance when I
took the pictures of her lying there."
I keep thinking of Simone de Beauvoir's great
title, La Cérémonie des Adieux. This is what Annie's
book is like, a great ceremony of farewells, with its theme
of death, sickness and grieving, counterbalancing a story of
the photographer's own family, childbirth and new lives beginning.
We are more used to the more harrowing kinds of photograph when
we see them in a different context - as documentation of the
lives and sufferings of people we know nothing about, or in
work such as Nan Goldin's which deals primarily in such material
- not when we turn a page to find some familiar star captured
in some bravura shot. Life and work are very much the same thing
for Nan. Why should the same not apply to Annie? We don't have
two lives - this is what her life has been like. But the effect
of these accumulated images is extraordinary.