On Fame & Femininity




3 minutes reading

Susan Sontag and Annie Leibovitz: two women noted in their own fields, inextricably tied to one another for more than 15 years by a relationship that defies clear definition. Sontag, an accomplished writer and theorist, and Leibovitz, an exemplary photographer known for her portraits of famed personalities.

Sontag had a stellar literary career, and is known for both her academic writing and her works of fiction. Amongst her accomplishments is On Photography, published in 1977, which remains a key text in photographic theory. Over a number of years, she wrote about photography’s social and political implications, focusing on American photographers and movements, resulting in a seminal collection of essays that remains potent 34 years after its initial publication.

Leibovitz’s accomplishments are no less grand. She started out as a photographer for Rolling Stone in the '70s, later becoming the magazine's chief photographer in 1973. Her portrait of John Lennon and Yoko Ono on the day of Lennon's death became an icon of a generation. Besides this iconic work, her photograph of a naked, pregnant Demi Moore, her notorious shoot with the Queen of England and her continued affiliation with Vanity Fair have made her one of the most popular portrait photographers of the past three decades.

Woman in photography
It comes as no surprise then that Sontag and Leibovitz’s relationship is a keystone in the history of women in photography. They met when Leibovitz was commissioned to take Sontag’s portrait for the sleeve of her book, Aids and its Metaphors, in 1988. They maintained an intimate relationship for over a decade, although very little is known about their personal lives together. They lived in apartments that overlooked each other, travelled together and collaborated on a book entitled Women, for which Leibovitz provided portraits of a huge variety of women and Sontag wrote the accompanying essay.

As Sontag wrote in her introduction, it is a book about "people with nothing more in common than that they are women (and living in America at the end of the twentieth century)." The book is a testament to the versatility and individuality of women, exemplified and celebrated by the diverse portraits included in the book. 

It was only when Sontag was diagnosed with cancer that Leibovitz decided to document their private lives by starting a series of photographs based on Sontag’s slow demise. The images are painful, powerful and immensely private. Leibovitz captured some of Sontag’s final moments, and she admitted that she would not have published these photographs of an extremely vulnerable Sontag if she were still alive.

The pictures of their remaining time together are included in Leibovitz’s retrospective account A Photographer's Life: 1990-2005; they are controversial but also a document of the unspoken. Sontag died in 2004 and although it is her being portrayed, the images perhaps say more about Leibovitz’s grief and the loss of this defining relationship than they do about her dying companion. The nature of their relationship remains ambiguous; Leibovitz herself previously described it as being most like a friendship, although she has also admitted to liking the romantic notion behind the term ‘lover’. She named one of her twin daughters after Sontag, born after her death through a surrogate, and they practically raised her eldest daughter Sarah (born in 2001) together when Sontag was still alive.

Perhaps it is the ambiguity of their relationship that draws a clear parallel with photography and the female philosophy behind it; a desire to escape stereotype and to have personal freedom of expression. As Diane Arbus said, "A photograph is a secret about a secret." Is it in woman’s nature to be as enigmatic as a photographic truth?