So, how exactly did Annie Leibovitz, one of the most iconic photographers of our times, end up going broke? And why does this feel especially tragic and infuriating?
Annie Leibovitz has taken some of the most famous images of our time, and her name is still a byword for prestige photography, both glam and artistically credible. As the longtime partner of Susan Sontag, she occupied the rareified echelon of "respectable supercouple." As the in-depth story by New York magazine's Andrew Goldman tells it, she was generally thought to pull down astronomical fees for Vanity Fair and Vogue and be well-set with royalties, to say nothing of her successes in NYC real estate. In short, in a lot of ways she seemed like a definition of modern success.
It's always confusing when people who are really rich - or could be - go bankrupt. How do they manage it? We think. Sure, it's well known that Leibovitz struggled with addiction for years - being Rolling Stone's head photographer in its heyday couldn't have helped - and she's also a notorious perfectionist, whose shoots are legendarily expensive. But still, she wasn't someone purely at the mercy of the market's vagaries, but someone talented, and with her drug habit licked and what seemed like a stable family life, this level of excess just feels...confusing. Well, as the article details, she was just a bad businesswoman: extravagant, imprudent, generous, stubborn, alternately greedy and unworldly, and bad about getting maximum money from her achievements. She was also one of many who lived on credit and didn't expect it all to come crashing down. Says Goldman,
It's impossible to account for all of Leibovitz's line-item expenses, but as surprising as it may be to outsiders, she was clearly spending beyond her means. One close associate of Leibovitz's theorizes that she identified too much with her subjects. "Photographers aren't professional athletes, recording artists, or supermodels," the source says. "Compared to 99 percent of the world, she makes a vast fortune. The problem occurs when a person becomes so famous that they start feeling that they're more in line financially with Oprah or Madonna."
Um, okay, but to the rest of us, that hardly cuts it. She still had much, much more money than even the average celebrity photographer. And $24 million in debt is hard to rack up. So there's the usual incredulity that accompanies these stories of excess. But in this case, maybe there's more: there's a disappointment that's actually quite unfair and has nothing to do with Annie Leibovitz the actual person. I would never have realized it before all this, but Leibovitz was someone whose life I sort of looked up to. Not just for the work, but because, if I'd stopped to analyze it, she seemed to have it figured out. Even in the tragic aftermath of losing her partner, she seemed like a definition of true success, someone who seemed to have the magic combo of artistic and financial symbiosis. And I'm sure, in some way, her sex and her sexuality played into this: she was someone who'd earned the right to live as she wanted, and as such she was an inspiration and a pioneer. That's unfair of course, as all such un-asked-for pressures are: Leibovitz was, I guess, allowed to be as bad with money and extravagant and cut off from normal concerns as any rich person. I know this, and yet I feel an extra disappointment: another one bites the dust. Another person whom we didn't know, but whom we decided to project onto as a sign that it could be done, is fallible in the same way so many people are. And money's no security from anything.
How Could This Happen to Annie Leibovitz? [New York]