Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Tabloids, Annie Leibovitz, and the Queen

N.B. I wrote this several months ago—during the Queen’s visit to America. For some reason, I never got around to posting it. I considered revising after visiting the Leibovitz exhibition at the High in Atlanta, but never got around to that either.

First a word or two on CNN: For those who like their news in small, easy-to-digest-in-one-gulp bites, cable news channels and their Websites are just the place. Instead of real headlines, you can get those in-dept human interest stories Americans love some much. Here’s a sampling of today’s stories: “Oprah backs Obama, says worth being on limb,” “Woman, 65, charged with taping teen sex acts,” and “High school sweethearts go to prom 60 years late.” Is it just me, or does this sound amazingly like a tabloid?

To be fair, the international version of the CNN site is less sensationalized, which is only more shameful on our part. Both versions have those “highlight” boxes now, so you don’t even have to read the bad journalism, just get the gist of it in three or four bullet points. The also have a habit of giving you shocking headlines like “Queen told William to dump Kate.” Ah, but when you click on the article, it has little or nothing to do with the truth. It’s all “secret sources, etc,” hearsay and gossip, the fodder of junior high. But the biggest of these peeves is that, whenever writing about England, they always quote The Sun or The Daily Mirror.

I’m ranting about CNN because it was necessary to mention CNN and I just couldn’t help myself. Having done that, I’ll move on to less irritating topics.

Today one of the stories on CNN International is “Critics not amused by queen photo,” in which critics argue about whether or not Annie Leibovitz’s portrait of Elizabeth II is too boring, too shocking, or just too unoriginal. The article, originally from Reuters, identifies Leibovitz as the photographer “famed for showing celebrities naked or bathing in asses’ milk,” as if that’s the only thing she’s ever done. Of course, Leibovitz is infamous for her portraits of a naked and pregnant Demi Moore, Whoopi Goldberg in a bathtub of asses’ milk, and John Lennon, naked, curled against Yoko Ono. They’re iconic photographs, but they are only representational of Leibovitz entire portfolio in that they are provocative. Her photographs have an aesthetic quality that, for whatever reason, make you just stare at them. Maybe it’s the lighting, or the way the subject is framed, or maybe it’s just some deeply unspoken humanity.

(Polly Weydener, retired chiropractic’s assistance, who teaches belly dancing and ballroom dancing as a hobby. From The New York Times excerpt of the book Women)

Obviously, Queen Elizabeth II isn’t going to agree to being photographed with anything less than dignity. Some criticize, saying that there’s no personality in the photograph, that it isn’t provocative enough. Others defend it for being traditional; still some, like myself, seem to argue just for the sake of arguing. But what I found so interesting is that, once you see the photograph, it isn’t controversial at all. The controversy seems to arise, not from its subject matter, but from its unseen photographer. We aren’t shocked by the Queen; we’re shocked by Annie Leibovitz taking a picture of the Queen. And why is that so shocking? Because, well, Annie Leibovitz is always shocking. Isn’t that reasoning enough? The artist becomes the subject.

The second thing that struck me about that is the fact is that if you’re seen as highly controversial, the lack of controversy itself becomes controversial. If Ann Coulter ever says anything sane or logical, she’ll be the number one story in America. There comes a point in anything, whether it’s nudity in photographs, nonsense in political commentary, or violence in films, (or carnage in Iraq) when people just aren’t shocked anymore. With Leibovitz, though, you don't always have to be shocked to be captivated.

(Mother and daughter, Blythe Danner and Gwyneth Paltrow, also from Women.)