Washington Life Magazine
Washington Life Magazine

Life through a Lens
Barbara Leibovitz shares the experience of making an intimate documentary about her sister

I’ve been a documentary fi lmmaker for about 15 years. I’ve always tried to go out on my own, and not use my sister’s name, and not go that direction. But everyone was always asking me, “When are you going to do a fi lm on your sister?” I really avoided it for many years. She was doing her thing, I was doing my thing. I felt I needed to be comfortable with who I was fi rst. Right after my dad was diagnosed with lung cancer, and Susan Sontag was dying, was a time when we felt extremely close. We both discussed it and felt it was the right time.
Annie told me she needed to be documented because of how important she felt her work was at that time and I fi nally felt secure with my own career. The fi lm is a collaboration between the two of us. It is also an enormous responsibility for me, and so different from the other fi lms I’ve made. It’s an intimate fi lm, because I’m her sister, and that was the biggest difference. I fi lmed her on my own with just the family, while she was shooting all her commercial work.
The interweaving of the family, her relationship with Susan, and her work is a natural because that really is her life. I want people to see this fi lm and say, “I really know who Annie Leibovitz is.” I spent some time with Annie recently and I asked her advice, and I also asked her if she wanted me to say anything on her behalf about the fi lm. Annie’s only response was, “people want to hear the truth.” Well then, here goes...Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens was probably one of the most diffi cult fi lms I have ever done.
It took two years to make this documentary. The first year there was the money factor, we had none... My husband, Jaime Hellman, who is also a fi lmmaker, and I shot most of the summer in Rhinebeck, N.Y., at Annie’s farm, capturing her with our own cameras and our own money.
Annie helped out in the fall, getting images ofher commercial work, and by March 2006 we had over 300 hours of footage. That was not the only challenge. I am sure you’ve all heard the famous saying, “you should never work with family,” and it’s probably true. But we decided to close our eyes and step on the gas pedal. It was hard, especially when you are the “little” sister and are given that certain glare of “why did you do that?” Annie and I eventually jumped over those hurdles, and through all the turmoil, we realized we had each other.
We both knew the love of family was always there, but we didn’t understand how strong our relationship is. The fi lm is an intimate portrait of an artist who grew up in a military family, who traveled a lot, and who has translated that into her work and her art. She’s someone who is always searching to go further and further. Annie never stops. She has a tremendous amount of stamina and drive. You see that in her as a child. You see where that comes from, and then you see how it translates into her work. I really love my sister, and I made this fi lm out of love.


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