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Sep 29, 2006

With Deep Apologies To Susan Sontag

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Oh, if this story was only about Afghanistan....

Many of you emailed me about Newsweek ditching the "Losing Afghanistan" cover on this week's American edition.  Most also directed me to the incriminating screen shot from Newsweek's site juxtaposing the cover image for three continents with the one for the U.S.

As to the Afghan downgrade specifically, I have little to add to the excellent American Journalism Review piece discussing how "the real 9/11 war" has been neglected by American media (and domestic magazine covers).  What wasn't much examined in all this, however, was the state-side cover (and cover story) Newsweek ran instead.

I found it incredibly revealing that Newsweek would torpedo the Afghanistan story in favor of a profile of star photographer, Annie Leibovitz.  What it signifies, in a larger sense, is how political reporting (far beyond Newsweek) has become obsessed with form.

In a BAG discussion thread the other day, a commenter writes:

When is this "Show" going to be over? When is our President his administration, our Senators and Congress people going to quit putting on this subliminal show for us and start actually doing something of substance. Something that means something, something that gets something done, something that actually changes something for the better. When are they going to get on the ball and start to actually fix the things that have gone wrong instead of depending on only shaping public opinion through visual displays and word manipulation?

Of course, human nature being what it is, politics (and political media) has always been concerned with personality, posturing, attraction.  At what other time, however -- in the midst of so much contention and conflagration, so much blood and so many flames -- have our leaders (with our media chained behind) been so preoccupied with the picture, picture making and, even, the picture maker?

But then, looking further into this Newsweek cover/cover story, I'm sorry to say that the picture gets even uglier.

Why, exactly, did Newsweek forsake the Afghanistan story?  As marketing carny (and International Editor) Fareed Zakaria explained to the International Herald Tribune:  "In the U.S., Newsweek is a mass-circulation magazine with a broad reach, while overseas it 'is a somewhat more upmarket magazine for internationally minded people who travel a lot' ...."  Accordingly, Newsweek switched out the cover because the magazine was able to negotiate an exclusive right to publicize Leibovitz's new book.

Granted, the publishing of this album might be a worthy cultural event.  Under impoverished current terms, it might even be justified as a noteworthy political story.  That being possible, however, somebody should (and I refuse to understand why no one did) consider the primary hook of the Leibovitz story (along with the way Newsweek marketed that hook).

If anyone in contemporary American criticism achieved sanctity for intellectual seriousness, respect for culture from "hi to low," and the ability to preserve one's dignity and privacy as an American icon, it was Susan Sontag.  Further, if anyone cultivated more attention and regard for the art and practice of contemporary documentary photography and photojournalism, it was also Susan Sontag.

More shame, then, to Leibovitz, Newsweek and Random House for trading on Sontag's privacy, memory and, in a fantastically disturbing act of irony, Sontag's own image, to whore this magazine.

Give me Jack Nicholson and Demi Moore (in the "Unforgettable Celebrity Shots" photo gallery to the right of the on-line article).  Give me Nelson Mandela and even that (rather good) portrait of a justifiably suspicious Bush cabal.  Give me the political shots of Sarajevo (which, juxtaposed with the celebrity pics, seem more like portfolio filler).  I'll even take the shots of Leibovitz's family, which -- given who and what she is -- are thoroughly uninteresting.

But my god, don't give me this press release in which Leibovitz gushes on about the intimate details of her relationship with Sontag.  And certainly, certainly, certainly do not use the 22nd shot of a 22 image photo gallery for a perverse grand finale, and to brag how you chose the dress ("a favorite bought in Milan") that Sontag wore the day after she died, which (and I don't blame readers for avoiding the upcoming link) you used to turn this revered figure into Newsweek necro-porn.

(cover images: Newsweek Cover.  October 2, 2006.  linked image: Annie Leibovitz.  New York, December 29, 2004)


"the communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living" T.S.Eliot

Hideous graphic design, too.

I haven't seen mentioned anywhere the fact that Susan Sontag was reviled by the right in terms they usually reserve for Michael Moore when, in the New Yorker magazine that followed 9/11, she dared to hint that the U.S. might bear some responsibility for the terrorists' rage--that we hadn't been attacked merely because the terrorists hate music and sunshine. My impression is that she then spent the rest of her days under a black cloud, at least in "red-state" America, for her candor and clarity.

And now Newsweek puts a celebration of her lesbian life partner on the cover rather than a graphic declaration of our failure, five years later, to pacify the land from whence the terrorists came.

How to unravel the irony? The "let's hide the bad news" angle is obvious, but from a cultural perspective (even though they cloak the description of the two women's relationship, and even though your critique of their "use" of Sontag is apt), this could be seen as a real thumb in the right's eye, and on more than one level. Sontag actually might not mind at all.

MSNBC had a send-in form to give questions to leibovitz while she was on air so I asked her how she felt about being used as a fluff piece to distract the citizens of America from such serious issues that they really should be informed of; I asked her if this was fulfilling to her as an artist. I doubt they chose my letter to read live, wot?

Wow, your reaction, Bag, astonished me but I can concur with your sentiments.

...can you point to a good biography of Susan Sontag?

"To take a photograph is to participate in another person's mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time's relentless melt." ~ Susan Sontag

Maybe her partner knew her better than anyone else? I find the last photograph distasteful but reading through quotes from Sontag, I'm guessing that maybe she would've approved. She certainly wasn't one to flinch from looking hard at the indignities of life and death.

When I saw this cover had been chosen for the U.S., I had to laugh. Yes, the rest of the world is focused on the terror wars while the U.S. is focused on ... it's life in pictures.

Oh yeah, much more important than the war being lost in Afghanistan. Celebrities, celebrity babies, celebrity relationships (although it is interesting how they described, and didn't describe, their relationship) - oh, don't let me forget nude celebrities...

The top two American magazine covers over the years were a nude John Lennon nude and a nude, pregnant Demi Moore? And this is the civilized society we're trying to force on the Afghan people? I don't think so...

I just can't be impressed with the idea that they have a crew of 50 and spend days flying around to different locations, just to get a photo of one of these people - often for magazine covers, which brings us back to where we started... because the public buys magazines with celebrities on the cover - especially if they're nude.

I don't pay any attention to the celebrity stories, and I rarely watch TV - and then only the news. I find it kind of infuriating that I actually know when Tom Cruise or Brangelina or Britney is expecting a baby - or that Britney lost her male nanny, or that Paris Hilton got caught drunk driving. But I absorb this from the headlines when I go to yahoo or even the BBC world news website. This is the crap that passes for news!

Bread and circuses, anyone?

Guardian's obituary for Susan Sontag.

argumentum ad nauseam : “The Goebbels technique, repeating a [talking] point until it is taken to be the truth...

...Goebbels also pioneered the use of broadcasting in mass propaganda, promoting the distribution of inexpensive single frequency radio receivers (the so-called Volksempfänger (People's Radio) to the German public which ensured that millions of people heard the output of the Reich's propaganda ministry while being unable to receive news and other broadcasts from outside Germany.

Here the Wiki writer is using the word "broadcasting" in its traditional, technical sense, ie., "one-to-many" whereas today, most of us could describe not only the post-modern idea of "narrowcasting," but also the concept of a media filter.

Existing in such a Medium = Framed State of Self Awareness you do not so much "turn on, tune in, and drop out." Rather, YOU are that which is being tuned in, some base instinct of you that is being turned on; the desired response is "Me, Too!" as your dissent=self-reliance drops out.

Goebbels often expressed his preference for propaganda to be vapid scenes of family life idealism, variety entertainment shows and celebrity ~ minimizing requisite "spin" or, well NewSpeak ~ which he thought un-necessary if propaganda is successful.

What is also interesting is the reality content that Goebbels pumped through his audio-visual pipes, especially after he introduced the talking point, "Total War" during the famous Sportpalast speech of 18-FEB-1943 : “Millions of Germans listened to Goebbels on the radio as he delivered this speech about the "misfortune of the past weeks" and an "unvarnished picture of the situation." The audience reacted in a fanatical way, causing an even bigger impact; they were selected by Goebbels to perform befittingly...

When you wish for "The Show" to end, mind you do not get "Total War" that which you ask for :-/

According to the Daily Show, Newsweak couldn't bring itself to mention the word lesbian in reference to either Liebovitz or Sontag. Thus we get a sex shadow show within a celebrity shadow show to distract us from a staged war that's gone terribly wrong.

"Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution...." - Susan Sontag

"Necro-porn"? What a wildly offensive misread, given the sexual implications of the word "porn."

FYI, "post-mortem" or "memorial" photography was common throughout Europe and America in the late 1800s and an important stage in the development of early photography. Because death was treated as a normal part of in-your-face life rather than as a taboo to be hidden from view, post-mortem photography was a form of portraiture, which, for some families, was the only kind of portrait they could ever afford (and therefore could ever own) of a loved one. Sometimes the living members of a family sat with the deceased in the picture, sometimes the deceased was photographed in a coffin, but always the deceased was *dressed* formally. Leibovitz is obviously following in this tradition (the photograph looks old, doesn't it?), and the way you can tell it's NOT porn is because the image is respectful and beautiful. This is an extremely personal photograph, a documentation of human experience, intended, given the two people involved, as a work of art. You don't have to like it, but why do you presume that a creative, intelligent couple wouldn't have discussed taking this photograph before Sontag died? Why would you presume such an intimate knowledge of two very private people?

Memento mori: Remember that you are mortal.

" 'All photographs are memento mori,' Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography (1977), her groundbreaking collection of essays.",camhi,73559,13.html

An interesting and well-done site about 19th century post-mortem photography and other memorials:

With deep apologies to Susan Sontag.

Call me philistine, call me a hick, but photographer as glamorous cultural icon? Why should I be interested? Annie Leibowitz isn't in my pantheon of celebritude, and my response is ewwww. It was ewwww before I got to the deathbed shot of Susan Sontag. ANY photo album that starts with a shot of Jack Nicolson playing golf in a bathrobe has lost me before it even starts. EWWWWWW! How bizarre to glimpse into this cozy club of people who are famous because other people take pictures of them.

I look at this cover, and I see a stranger, a man-woman in black (shades of the Vogue Italia story the other day) with fair-haired children that are Eloise Wilkins precious. Talk about cognitive dissonance. It is like discovering that Andy Warhol decorates with Ralph Lauren.

Six years of Bushco have made me paranoid. I wonder, who is Newsweek's target market? What values are they are pitching to that audience? What response is this cover meant to evoke from me?

And why does a major media player like Newsweek, owned by so-called liberal Washington Post, choose to showcase a lesbian with her children on the cover of their domestic issue? Six weeks before an election. As America loses a war? As GWB gets his license to kill, maim & torture?

Are liberals still that stuck in identity politics? Is the Washington Post just fronting for Karl Rove, trying to rile the homophoic base? Is the media business so corrupt that it is all just about selling their new acquisition?

The one photo that was kind of interesting was the Bush cabinet, as the BAG noted, I think. They look posed, but the body language is still interesting. And they look much fresher and younger than they do today - I'd like to see an updated photo of the same people.

I have to separate Newsweek's decision not to confront the US citizenry with the morbid facts of the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan (which is abominable) and the fact that the US edition covers Annie Leibovitz' photography and life. MonsieurGonzo has expertly covered the first. So since the latter is what we have before us, here goes.

rtbag beat me to the punch with the momento mori comment. Note that one of Leibovitz' photography icons was Richard Avedon, who did a colossal series of huge photographs (B&W) of his father as he was dying. I don't think that Sontag would be a bit upset about the photographs, especially since she had ample time prior to her death to indicate whether she wanted photos to be taken or not.

As for Leibovitz, I was only into photography a few years when I came across her photos in Rolling Stone, and they just blew me away. Especially since, at that time, women were just breaking into photography. I've sort of followed here career since then. As photographer for Vanity Fair, she has to shoot what they tell her to shoot. Should she quit and go to Iraq? She once tried going to a war zone and perhaps it just isn't for her. People must know their own boundaries and war zones aren't for everyone. But I think it's beyond the pale to criticize her for publishing photos (all of which I have not seen yet) of a personal nature among ones of celebrities. When one is an artist or writer, personal becomes public becomes political. etc.

Leibovitz and Sontag are two women I greatly admire. Perhaps that is coloring my supposed objectivity. In fact, I'm not even sure that I should have posted this.

Cactus, read-nota-critic/screenplay writer Agee on bourke-white

I've heard the name Susan Sontag before, but I don't think people from my generation even know who she is. (I'm 27.) So I just started looking in to her now. (since you had so much to say about her, I wondered "who's that?")
I asked my very well read fiance and he'd never heard the name.

What strikes me about this cover is this image of the american super-mom with kids and a blockbuster career. I acutely think these images are rather damaging because in practice it's pretty hard for women to 'have it all.' Parenting is a full time job. Women are still expected to do most of that work. If you have kids forget the career. Boomers are so impractical.

But I love how she can hardly hold on to it all. It's like she needs the tripod to keep balanced. Kids on the left, photos on the right.

And this is what were given instead of the image of more strife in that region of the world we'd rather not think about these days.

If not anorexic-ally thin then the ideal woman is super human jugging full time motherhood with a full-time career. I just read that she's gay too? Even better. I'm so sick of all of this nothing-can-stop-youism, it has nothing to do with the real world I live in every day.

How many men with interesting careers are pictured saddled with their kids? We don't even think about it because some good little woman is certainly tending to them.

Bag, I am positive Susan Sontag would have loved that photo -- she looks so wonderfully Gertrude Steinish! Which completely refutes a dead person is a dead person is a dead person. Something she was thinking about, I'm sure.

Wow...This has been very interesting.

When I first saw the image of Sontag lying there, immediately following that awful front page photo with Liebovitz looking all frazzled, I was disgusted at what I was seeing. And when The BAG echoed my sentiments, I only felt more assured of my (righteous) disgust.

This preceding discussion however has made me do a complete 180...I also thought of the whole Qana fantabulation and how it was only customary in some cutlures to display the dead. I think perhaps display is the wrong word because what is really going on is not so much being "displayed" as it is being looked at, seen, witnessed. I think our reactions of horror, and now, our proclamations of necro-porn, are culturally induced and culturally circumscribed. After a bit of research, I've found that seeing (witnessing) the dead body is not uncommon at all, and certainly it is still very much alive today.

I suspect then, that we have been made to abhor any visual reminders of death through loud PR noises & signs (& symbols of course)...after all, we do live in a corpocracy where death doesn't sell anything - except perhaps, Six Feet Under ;)

rtbag, thanks for the Sontag links...Doing a quick google search, I found this piece she wrote for The New Yorker a few days after 9/11:

Its astonishing to note her ability for clear-headedness at a moment when it seemed the entire Western hemisphere was going to collapse under the weight of grief. I must go out and find this groundbreaking collection of essays now...

it is very interesting. and as a fact- this is exactly what art is supposed to do. you talk about it, some people are upset, some people don't like it, some think it's tasteless, some like it, some love it, perfect! that is what an artist wants,I know this is what I wanted if that would be one of my pictures. and I agree Annie Leibowitz knows Susan Sontag a little better then we all, don't you think? So I'm sure she did what Susan would have wanted.
as for world news, sorry to all of you who are so disappointed about the cover and the neglect of what's all around. I gave up a long time ago to get my news and updates from ANY american magazine or internet website. Maybe you should think about that.
Great photographs,Annie Leibowitz is one of the most talented Photographers.


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