I’ve always loved Annie Leibovitz‘s photography. Sure, I’ve admired her rolling stone covers, and her American Music series, and even her celeb portraits. But that is a fleeting love. What I admire most are her portraits of her partner, Susan Sontag, as she lie dying. Some might say the camera was a tool Leibovitz used to distant herself from the grief of reality, but to me, it certainly shows a presence with that grief. A way of holding griefs hand through a journey. The images are haunting and raw, and those images are, more than anything else, the reason I love Annie.
Photography is an elegiac art, a twilight art. Most subjects photographed are, just by virtue of being photographed, touched with pathos. An ugly or grotesque subject may be moving because it has been dignified by the attention of the photographer. A beautiful subject can be the object of rueful feelings, because it has aged or decayed or no longer exists. All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability.
What do you see in the below photograph?
Scribbles and scrawls; part of a bench, and maybe a tree. But this photograph isn’t about the tree in the background, or the bench, or even the scribbles and scrawls or the mementos left on the bench. I believe no photograph is about what the photograph shows, but about what the photograph does not show. for me, it is the story behind what a photograph shows that offers the intrigue.
Susan Sontag once wrote “A photograph is only a fragment, and with the passage of time its moorings become unstuck.” If this is the case, these image will last only as long as the memory of Kurt Cobain resides in pop culture, and will become irrelevant as a cultural shared grief fades. I cannot say how long that will be, but in the 17 years since the lead singer of Nirvana committed suicide, this shared grief lives strong, and can be seen in the letters and flowers left on the graffiti bench that sits in the park behind the house the angst-ridden star lived and died in. So, is this really a photograph of just a bench?
The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.