For the Sake of the Children
by John Howard — King's College London
February 10, 2010 – 11:48
Co-validating, co-credentializing, Annie Leibovitz and Oprah Winfrey train their cameras upon one another. Leibovitz exalts Winfrey’s singularity, counterintuitively, through a group portrait. As if weighing relative worth or wealth, the renowned celebrity photographer gathers together three media stars in a captivating image for her photobook Women (1999). Spread across two massive pages – the spine a dividing line – the black-and-white picture shows two white women at left surrounded by handlers. In a procession to greatness, we see first Diane Sawyer, far left. Then viewing left to right as is customary, we encounter the elder Barbara Walters. On the right-hand page, centered, directly facing the camera but not returning the gaze, is the upstart who overtook them. Overtook all.
Winfrey returns the favour, hosting Leibovitz on the TV talk show on 16 November 2006, just as her major retrospective begins its tour of the United States and Europe – priceless advertising. The so-called tell-all “Dream Jobs” episode begins with its maker Winfrey’s 6 a.m. cardio workout, followed by her daily decision-making around the show, magazine, and radio. Upcoming topics and guests, mostly – nothing about, say, employee relations at Harpo. This first segment about the unmarried, childless guru ends gleefully with girls – those who will attend the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. Next up, the “legendary” Leibovitz “takes you inside her private life” – not to acknowledge the open secret of her relationship to Susan Sontag, whom the exhibition calls her “long-time friend” (or, in the Madrid hanging, “gran amiga”). Rather the career woman confides that, even though in her fifties, finally having children proves the greatest satisfaction: “All the clichés are true.”
Girlhood figures in an additional portrait of Winfrey by Leibovitz –a smaller solo portrait that didn’t make the exhibition’s final cut. This image attempts to explain origins. I can almost hear a twangy blues-guitar backtrack to this hackneyed representation of a reminiscing visionary, as – far from the madding entourage – she revisits the front porch of an old tumbledown shack in her native Mississippi. Must a newly revised rags-to-riches narrative, at last encompassing women and African Americans, reduce them to the primacy of childrearing and childhood aspiration?