What price fame?

Greta Garbo, by Clarence Sinclair Bull, 1939, National Portrait Gallery, Ã'© Estate of Clarence

Annie Leibovitz isn’t the first celebrity photographer to become as famous as the subjects she shoots (think Matthew Brady, Edward Steichen, and Richard Avedon, to name just a few).  But in the last few weeks, the messy ups and downs of her financial life have been getting the same kind of exposure that her intentionally provocative portraits of the famous do.  At issue, not just her day-to-day liquidity, but the fate of  Leibovitz’s work and archive, now that a $24 million dollar credit line is about to come due.

Recent articles and blog posts in high visibility venues like the New York Times and Gawker spell out the details. Leibovitz—who earns a reported $3 million a year from Vanity Fair, and hundreds of thousands more from other clients, including Louis Vuitton—was sued on July 29th by Art Capital Group, the company that extended the eight-figure loan to her.  As collateral, Leibovitz is reported to have pledged not only her real estate holdings, but her images and all future earnings from them.   (You can, if you like, see a selection of Leibovitz’s images on PBS’s website.)

Art Capital alleges that Leibovitz is already behind in six-figure amounts for unpaid fees associated with the loan, and is frustrating their attempts to sell her photos and refusing to allow real estate agents into her homes.  The media—venue for and source of Leibovitz’s success—is predictably excited by the turn of events and speculating about what happens next.

“Is this a metaphor for the bankruptcy of celebrity culture?” asked Allen Salkin in The New York Times article. Maybe, but that still wouldn’t dim our continued interest in seeing pictures of the famous.  For those of us interested in the central role photography plays in honoring and bulking up media coverage of accomplishment, and influencing how history gets written, the question might be more interesting if it were  rephrased.  Is it possible to conceive of fame and celebrity without photography?  Having researched and organized an exhibition on the subject, I doubt it.   You can read more about the complex links between photography and celebrity in a number of interesting pieces written for click! photography changes everything by Leo Braudy, author of The Frenzy of Renown, and by Amy Henderson and Frank Goodyear of the National Portrait Gallery, and Jacquelyn Days Serwer at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

As for the other question that all this publicity raises--whether we should care about or feel sorry for Annie Leibovitz—your answer will depend upon your level of interest in the celebrities who appear in or take pictures, and what happens to them when it looks like they’re about to hit the wall.

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