Sad, sad and sadder

The life of Annie Leibovitz, poets' and thinkers' tombs and a vanished world.

leibovitz book 88 (photo credit: )
leibovitz book 88
(photo credit: )
German once rivalled Hebrew in Jerusalem; I can still remember when The Palestine Post, Hadassah-University Hospital, Bezalel and the city's cafe's and bars were staffed mostly by German Jews. A daily newspaper appeared in German. Few speak or read German today. But the good thing about Schirmer/Mosel's books on photography is that you can manage without the texts; the photographs speak for themselves. Annie Leibovitz A Photographer's Life 1990-2005 (Schirmer/Mosel 472 pages. 343 plates in color and duotone) appeared in English last year but the text is anyway reticent. The first plate shows the silhouette of Leibovitz's lover Susan Sontag contemplating Petra and photographs of the dying Sontag and the photographer's dying Jewish father dominate this huge and heavy book. Sontag's tragic face (and even her single-breasted body) is everywhere. She even took some of the photographs of Leibovitz herself. There are also sad shots of dying casualties in Sarajevo. The other big theme of the book is celebrities, most in color, many so posed that they look like well-lit waxworks (see the first Bush cabinet or Brad Pitt). A sad book, in more ways than one. Tumbas Graber von Dichtern und Denkern (Stones of Poets and Thinkers) by Cees Nooteboom, photographs by Simone Sassen (Schirmer/Mosel, 250pp, 135 plates, 19 in color) is a lovely, yet sad, book because the tombs of creative people never match their achievements; the best they can do is achieve an esthetic simplicity, like the gravestones of Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811), Marcel Proust (1871-1922) and Samuel Beckett (1906-89). Japanese gravestones are elegantly carved in Kanji. A single slab serves Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80) and Simone de Beauvoir (1903-1986). Many years ago I visited a church in what was then Leningrad to see its little garden cemetery. Allegedly buried there were all of Russia's great composers, assembled post-mortem to lie together. Anton Rubinstein, buried elsewhere, was represented by a column surmounted with a bronze portrait. The biggest and kitschiest grave was that of poor Tchaikovsky, the composer's bust covered in winged muses and angels. Franz Kafka (1883-1924) lies in the Jewish cemetery of Prague. He has column with a Hebrew text which is above those of his parents. Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) is buried of course in Spain, with a stone in German and Spanish. Susan Sontag (1933-2004) lies beneath an unmarked stone in Montparnasse, but a simple plaque offers her name and dates. Baruch Spinoza (1632-77) lies behind a church in The Hague, with a slab adorned with a boldly expressive frieze of his face. Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) has a carved gravestone in Geneva. There are dozens more in this calm and strangely pleasant book. Gabriele Munter: Die Reise nach Amerika. Photographien 1899-1900 (The American Journey Photographs) (Schirmer/Mosel, 224pp. 130 plates) is a little-known aspect of the life of talented painter Gabriele Munter (1877-1962), longtime lover and companion of Wassily Kandinsky and good friend of Alexej von Jawlensky. Munter, barely 20 at the time, travelled with her sister Emmy and recorded life in fin de siecle America with a cheap Kodak box camera given her as a present after her arrival. This is an astonishing record of life in the austere backblocks of Missouri, Kansas and Texas, where people did not live in streets but often as not on the prairie, as well as glimpses of Dallas, St. Louis and New York City and a trip on a Mississippi steamboat. Munter photographed not just her relatives' friends but kids on the street and black children on a mule. It's all a remarkable look at a vanished world.