The Unpredictability of Life: Annie Leibovitz’s Sarajevo Bicycle
By LIZ HAGER
Annie Leibovitz, Bloody Bicycle, (Sarajevo, 1993), Kodak T-Max P3200 (©1993 Annie Leibovitz)
Though she is best known to the general public for her glossy “celebrity” portraits, Annie Leibovitz began her photographic career in the gritty tradition of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, that is to say, wandering around “looking for stories.” The unpredictability that characterizes photojournalism is a thread that runs through all of Leibovitz’ work, even those staged portraits.
In 1990,while reviewing images for a retrospective of her work, the photographer realized a pressing need to get back to “reportage.”
I was developing my own style of setting up formal portraits and theatrical scenes at the time, but I didn’t consider those conceptual portraits to be journalism. Portrait photography was liberating. I felt free to play with the genre. Photojournalism—reportage—was about being an observer. About seeing what was happening in front of you and photographing it. You didn’t tamper with it. For my generation of photographers the rules were very clear. That’s why so much is still written about whether Robert Capa did or did not stage the picture of the falling soldier during the Spanish Civil War and why Roger Fenton moved the cannonballs for the picture of the battlefield in the Valley of the Shadow of Death during the Crimean War. What they did matters…
In the summer of 1993, Leibovitz found an opportunity through Susan Sontag to go to Sarajevo. The city had been under siege for over a year; Serbs had been shelling the city from many points along its ring of mountains. Basic amenities—food, water, shelter—were minimal. Necessities, such as medicine, were scarce. Life in the city was extremely dangerous. People tried to go about their daily lives. Snipers were shooting at random. “Death was random,” remarks Leibovitz.
. . . Jeffrey Smith of Contact Press Images had helped me get in touch with someone who rented armored cars to news organizations. That’s how I met Hasan Gluhić. Hasan was my driver and guide. He got me everywhere. Hasan was with me the day I went to the apartment of a woman who had just won a beauty pageant. She had been crowned Miss Besieged Sarajevo. There was some irony intended, I think. Miss Besieged Sarajevo lived in a high-rise development on the western edge of the city where there was a lot of shelling. A mortar came down in front of our car as we drove through her neighborhood. It hit a teenage boy on a bike and ripped a big hole in his back. We put him in the car and rushed him to the hospital, but he died on the way. . .
. . . The concerns I had before I went to Sarajevo about what kinds of pictures I would take were erased simply by being there. There wasn’t time to worry about whether I was taking a portrait or some other kind of picture. Things happened too fast. You could only respond to them.
—all quoted texts from Annie Leibovitz, At Work, pp. 102-110 (Random House)
Put its difficult subject matter aside for a moment and notice that Bloody Bicycle is actually a graceful, well-composed still life. While serving up images of war, it’s a good trick for a photographer to play to an audience’s aesthetic sensibilities. (Do pictures of war need to be nasty for us to feel, to get the point?) The arc of the blood smear echos the shape of the bicycle wheels; the hurried brushstroke of blood counters the stationary mass of the bicycle. In some ways, by shooting in black and white, Leibovitz must have wanted to suspend our preconceptions about war, at least for a moment. No shocking red blood. Despite these strong pictorial components, the most powerful element in Bloody Bicycle is the unseen presence. The absent rider is the shocking reminder that the circumstances of death are the ultimate unpredictability of life.
Lee Miller’s Dachau photographs
Bridge Coaker: The New Photojournalism
Susan Sontag: Regarding the Pain of Others