Mary Altaffer  /  AP
A member of the press walks past a portrait of Brad Pitt, left, and one of Kate Moss and Johnny Depp during the press preview for 'Annie Leibovitz: A Photographers's Life, 1990-2005' Oct. 19th at the Brooklyn Museum. The exhibit runs through Jan. 21.
updated 10/25/2006 12:08:06 PM ET 2006-10-25T16:08:06

The impetus for a new museum retrospective of iconic photographer Annie Leibovitz's work was as simple and profound as life and death.

"Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer's Life, 1990-2005," grew out of the deaths of Leibovitz's companion, writer Susan Sontag, in 2004, and her father in 2005, and the birth of her children via a surrogate, she said at a preview at the Brooklyn Museum.

Shortly after Sontag's death, Leibovitz, 57, began sorting through hundreds of photographs she had taken over the years of Sontag as well as her family and close friends.

"It was like being on an archeological dig," said Leibovitz, dressed in her trademark black jeans and shirt.

"I had no reason to look for these pictures, except for Susan's death."

"But honestly, I didn't know myself what I had," Leibovitz said. "And it was time for me to look back at my work."

The result is the exhibit and a new coffee table book published by Random House with the same title.

The show's 200 photographs are thematically juxtaposed, with large renditions of the celebrity portraits for which Leibovitz is best known variously paired with smaller candid shots such as those of her parents getting out of bed in a sun-washed beach cottage from 1997, or her mother and aunt bathing in Ocean City, Maryland, in 1993.

In one emblematic mounting, a formal, posed portrait of a fedora-topped actor Jamie Foxx shares wall space with an intensely personal shot of Sontag being carried on a stretcher from an air ambulance during the final stage of her battle with cancer. Both pictures were taken in 2004.

Leibovitz even included disturbingly intimate pictures of Sontag's body in a funeral home, and others of her father shortly after on his own deathbed.

"I intentionally made the personal work very small, so that you had to walk up close to it," she said. "I'm very passionate about the personal work, I feel very connected to it."

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Celebrity shots
Readers of glossy magazines such as Vanity Fair and Vogue associate Leibovitz with iconic images of a pregnant, nude Demi Moore, supermodel Cindy Crawford wearing only a snake or impossibly glamorous takes on Nicole Kidman or Scarlett Johansson, all of which are included in the show.

But Leibovitz said, "I realized this (the family shots) is the strongest work," explaining that "the longer you know someone the better they know you. So it's the most intimate work, and hence, the best work."

By contrast, Leibovitz said she had perhaps 45 minutes for a group picture of President Bush with Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice and other White House officials, as well as a series of individual portraits.

That picture is paired with a shot of documentary filmmaker and outspoken Bush critic Michael Moore.

The show is on display in Brooklyn through January and will then travel to San Diego, Washington's Corcoran Gallery, Paris' Museum of Photography and London's National Portrait Gallery.

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