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Annie Leibovitz: Eye of the beholder

High captures a snapshot of A Photographer's Life

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It comes as something of a shock in photographer Annie Leibovitz's solo exhibition at the High to see an artist synonymous with enshrining celebrity in the most adulatory terms also treating the idea of ordinary people and mortality in the same breath.

In the realm of celebrity portraiture, Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer's Life, 1990-2005 doesn't offer too many revelations that viewers might have missed in the pages of Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, beyond a preference for photographing older male stars shirtless. Leibovitz seems as apt to romanticize and eroticize her male subjects as her female ones, and that gender equality at least gives her celebrity portraits the tang of originality.

But for the most part, movie stars and musicians play their conventionalized role of gods and goddesses: assuming grandiose poses such as Cindy Crawford draped in a snake as Eve or former It couple Johnny Depp and a naked Kate Moss simultaneously occupying the celeb holy trinity of Youth, Beauty and Sex Appeal.

Even Leibovitz herself clearly needs the occasional break from celebrity, provided in her deeply haunting photos taken in Sarajevo in 1993 and in Rwanda. The latter feature bloody hand and footprints of Tutsi children slaughtered in that region's genocide, offering evidence of unspeakable brutality outside the golden light of fame and fortune.

Images such as this, as well as a series of work devoted to the prolonged deaths of her lover, Susan Sontag (called her "longtime friend" in the exhibit's euphemistic text) and her father, tend to make Leibovitz's celebrity work stick in the craw. These black-and-white, smaller-scale personal photos give the exhibition its heart and soul. Whether a curatorial decision meant to show the extremes of Leibovitz's photographic work, or some implicit commentary, the collision on one wall of a black-and-white image of Leibovitz's once-robust Air Force veteran father dying becomes all the more troubling when seen beside a seductively reclining Scarlett Johansson. That image of Johansson is suddenly crudely, depressingly symbolic of the superficial values of youth and sexuality the culture values at the exclusion of more important ones.

Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer's Life, 1990-2005. Through Sept. 9. $10-$15 general admission, free for members and children under age 6. Tues.-Wed., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thurs., 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sun., noon-5 p.m. High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St. 404-733-HIGH. www.high.org.

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