One thing there has unfortunately never been a shortage of is bad photographs, and collectively they parade a grand variety of shortcomings: there is unremitting blandness; poor taste; lack of taste; utter ignorance of taste; dullness (oh, much, much dullness); ostentation; unintentional humor; imitation; dishonesty; misguided attempts at aestheticism, and a great panoply of technical mistakes and missteps; the list goes on and on. But for inspired badness, this recent "photograph"* by Annie Leibovitz for the Lavazza calendar has it all: a pandering (unto capitulation) to empty style; excessive color which is nevertheless unattractive; an attractive model who is also unattractive (though she got legs! But what the hell is with that expression?); a really woeful idea (Romulus and Remus and their wolf-mother—oh, please) that nevertheless doesn't even work; heavyhanded overproduction; no trace of irony; a blatantly fake background that doesn't even try to match the studio-shot foreground; a baby butt, for that touch of smack-you-with-a-dead-fish cuteness; campy makeup, kitschy hair; and, to top it all off, a hilariously incongruous product placement like an embarrassing pimple. Ms. Leibovitz has made some great photographs in her time, and she's very far from the worst photographer ever, but she's also one of the most inconsistent of top photographers and her latest excesses of "stylyness"** are such a relentlessly wrong direction it's almost impossible to overstate, pretentious and vulgar in balanced measure. This picture as a whole has absolutely zero connection to reality or honest depiction, but is unredeemed by any countervailing expressive or artistic purpose. And (and this puts it out in front of many other contenders) it was all done intentionally, front to back, top to bottom, money-no-object, by an army of the most talented professionals, from art director to stylists to make-up artists to baby-wranglers to lighting assistants to photographer to digital retoucher, all working assiduously in concert in pursuit of the utterly pointless. You can name other contenders, but I think you have your work cut out for you. This is it.
*Really a pastiche, of mainly photographic elements. Those babies, for instance, were not shot at the same time as each other, nor were they shot with the model.
**With apologies to Stephen Colbert.
ADDENDUM: See also this newer comment posted separately. —MJ
Featured Comment by Kent: "But what if it is actually photographic genius? What if Ms. Leibovitz is actually making a statement about her own personal hell, and/or consumerism? What if she's saying 'My job sucks, but I can't see a way out! Look at the utterly vapid concepts I get paid huge sums of money to execute! Can you believe the client actually PAID ME A FORTUNE FOR THIS?!?' Yeah, I kind of doubt it too, but it's a thought. Trying to be optimistic in a trying time...."
Featured Comment by Jay Moynihan: "Ah, found it. Here is the 'original,' so to speak, that she based her photo on."
The Capitoline she-wolf with the boys Romulus and Remus. Museo Nuovo in the Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome. 13th century A.D. with figures of Romulus and Remus added in the 15th century.
Featured Comment by Barry Myers: "Gosh Mike! Turn it down on Annie Leibovitz and by extension, commercial photography. I'm almost certain that Leibovitz didn't dream up the concept for Lavazza (a coffee company, I believe)—she was hired to do a job. Probably had a layout to work from and some specifications as to image quality (PPI etc.), may have had some choice in talent—frequently, photographers present their choices to the client, but in the end, it's the client who chooses. The mood, lighting, even pose were most likely worked out by or with the client. She was a hired gun and she might even agree with you that it's not the greatest photo, but it may have been and I hope it was, a great assignment for her. Maybe she got to go to Rome, eat some great food, meet some interesting people, etc. and get paid.
"It's as though you're saying that if a client says to a photographer that they want you to photograph X, you
can come back at them with 'Why, I don't think X is the right person for me to shoot, how about Y or Z?' Photographers working on assignment just don't make their living that way.
"Annie Leibovitz is at the top of our profession. She does great work and judging by a recent radio interview I heard on the Kojo Nnamdi show (WAMU, Washington D.C.) and your review of her book, she's pretty damn articulate. It may be sad, as you, or perhaps someone else on your blog pointed out, that young photographers admire her more than say, young photographers in my day (the 'sixties) admired Cartier-Bresson or Eugene Smith (who were also working on assignment), but that doesn't take away any of her talent or success at what she does. Many, maybe most commercial photographers would love to have the opportunity to do the type of assignments she does so well.
"When I hear your criticism of certain images done on assignment, I cringe. All of us, I think, have done work on some lunatic concepts and even have done less than our best on others. You seem to think that we have a choice—and I guess we do: eat or starve. I think a more generous way to look at it, is that the customer is always right and to assume that the photographer can try to persuade a client in a different direction but usually, like in most retail transactions, it's futile.
"For personal work, the photographer gets to choose, otherwise, when there's a client, I think the object is to please the client. You can always shoot it your way if there's time and budget and it's something many of us ask our clients to do if we're not happy with the outcome of the client's ideas."
Mike replies: Fair points all, Barry, but I'm not criticizing the photographer or what anyone does for a living; I'm criticizing the result. The corollary to what you're saying would be that I should admire or tolerate an advertising photograph because everybody's doing their job and getting paid—you wouldn't say that, would you? It's like saying I should admire a work of art because the artist is sincere and works hard and has a family to feed. Besides, if nobody turns up the heat on clients for perpetrating horrible crap, then we deserve it when we get more and more visual pollution on our billboards, busses, and everywhere else we turn.