With Pomp, Pageantry and a Nature-inspired Sword, Annie Leibovitz Becomes an Immortal

PARIS — Annie Leibovitz has a new title, and a fancy sword to go with it.

The U.S. photographer was inducted to the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris on Wednesday in a star-studded ceremony filled with pageantry, earning her the title of Immortal, as the French refer to members of the illustrious institution.

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Anna Wintour, wearing her signature dark sunglasses, handed over the ceremonial sword at the outcome of the ritual staged under the imposing dome of the Institut de France, under the watchful eye of infantry officers of the French Republican Guard.

Dressed in an embroidered uniform designed by Louis Vuitton’s Nicolas Ghesquière, Leibovitz brandished the gnarly sword — resembling a prop from a Tolkien saga — as she received a standing ovation from guests including designers Giambattista Valli, Guillaume Henry and Harris Reed, fashion editor Carine Roitfeld, and Miren Arzalluz, director of the Palais Galliera fashion museum.

In a speech punctuated by lengthy silences, the 74-year-old photographer paid a moving tribute to her late partner Susan Sontag.

“Susan Sontag shaped my relationship to Paris and to French culture and art. I wouldn’t be in this room if it weren’t for Susan. She loved France,” she said.

Leibovitz was introduced by renowned Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, who wiped away tears at the end of his speech, and was followed on the podium by Patti Smith, who gave a stirring rendition of “Peacable Kingdom,” accompanied by her daughter Jesse Paris Smith on keyboard.

Patti Smith performs at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
Patti Smith

In a special section reserved for fellow Academy members sat choreographer Blanca Li, in her uniform designed by Chanel, photographer Dominique Issermann, wearing a bandana on her head, and artist Jean-Michel Othoniel, whose suit was made by Dior.

“The only thing more daunting than a French fashion show is a French academy, and by a similar principle, the only thing more intimidating than Annie Leibovitz is Annie Leibovitz brandishing a sword, so I stand before you today in awe and some degree of terror,” Wintour said when it was her turn to speak.

The global editorial director of Vogue and chief content officer of Condé Nast has worked with Leibovitz for close to three decades, and suggested a fair amount of sparring was involved. “Annie can parry, be playfully evasive, especially in any attempt to get inside her defenses,” Wintour said.

“Now with a sword in your hand you may not be d’Artagnan, it’s true, but with a camera, Annie is as dextrous and, better, a formidable and unstoppable force. The thousands of photographs she has published in her life are not just a testament to her imagination and the way it will survive the future, they are her vision and a plea for a better world,” she continued.

“In that way Annie is the most essential thing any artist can be: She is generous. So Annie we salute you, you have become Immortal,” Wintour concluded, her voice cracking.

Annie Leibovitz and Anna Wintour at the Académie des Beaux-Arts.
Annie Leibovitz and Anna Wintour at the Académie des Beaux-Arts.

Leibovitz was flanked by four generations of relatives, including her aunt Sally Jane, her sisters Susan and Barbara, her brother Philip and her daughter Susan. “My oldest daughter, Sarah, is somewhere in the Appenine Mountains, studying limestone outcroppings. She is a young earth scientist,” said Leibovitz, who has a third daughter called Samuelle.

She paused frequently as screens displayed images from her book “A Photographer’s Life: 1990-2005,” which mixes her portraits of luminaries — including Johnny Cash, Nicole Kidman, Keith Richards, Michael Jordan and Nelson Mandela — with reportage from the siege of Sarajevo in the early ‘90s, landscapes and intimate photos of her family and friends.

“‘A Photographer’s Life’ is the closest thing to who I am that I’ve ever done. It made me understand that my work is not one thing or another. It is one thing,” she explained.

Salgado recounted how Leibovitz started taking pictures in the late 1960s when she was studying painting at the San Francisco Art Institute, before working for Rolling Stone and subsequently Vanity Fair and Vogue, portraying a roll call of international figures ranging from John Lennon to Queen Elizabeth II.

Annie Leibovitz in her ceremonial uniform designed by Louis Vuitton's Nicolas Ghesquière.
Annie Leibovitz in her ceremonial uniform designed by Louis Vuitton’s Nicolas Ghesquière.

He suggested that her images were frequently more powerful that the words that accompanied them, a comment she echoed in her speech.

“I’m not a journalist. A journalist doesn’t take sides and I don’t want to go through life like that. I have a more powerful voice as a photographer if I express a point of view. Portraiture gave me the latitude to pick a side, have an opinion, be conceptual and still tell stories,” she said.

She hinted that photography has also helped her process the most difficult periods in her life. “Susan’s last illness was harrowing. I didn’t take any pictures of her at all until the end. I forced myself to take pictures of her last days. I didn’t analyze it. I just knew I had to do it,” she said.

After the ceremony, Leibovitz and guests headed to the courtyard of the 17th-century building, where she showed off her sword to Antoine Arnault, head of communication, image and environment at LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the parent company of Louis Vuitton.

Annie Leibovitz with Anna Wintour and members of the Académie des Beaux-Arts.
Annie Leibovitz with Anna Wintour and members of the Académie des Beaux-Arts.

She explained that the custom-made object was created from branches and a mushroom collected at her property in Rhinebeck, N.Y., that were then dipped in copper by florist Ariel Dearie, using a process inspired by French sculptor Claude Lalanne.

“You look so elegant,” Arnault said. Leibovitz said she was pleased with the Vuitton suit, which took 400 hours to complete, though she added jokingly: “But I like my baggy clothes more.”

The photographer joins the ranks of foreign associate members of the Académie des Beaux-Arts alongside the likes of British architect Sir Norman Foster, U.S. director Woody Allen and German artist Georg Baselitz. She fills the seat previously held by Chinese-born U.S. architect I.M. Pei.

It was the latest in a long series of honors for Leibovitz. In 2006, she was made a Commander of the French Order of Arts and Letters. She has received the International Center of Photography’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and has been designated a Living Legend by the U.S. Library of Congress.

The ceremony at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
The ceremony at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

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