August 24, 2009
Annie Leibovitz, photographer of stars, faces ruin
Annie Leibovitz is as famous as the people she photographs but now the genius behind the lens is close to financial ruin -- a victim, some say, of her own relentless artistic ambition.
Among the qualities making Leibovitz, 59, the most sought after portrait photographer in the world are legendary perfectionism and the pouring of resources into lavish sets.
Over the course of her long career, nothing has been too extreme in Leibovitz's pursuit of the perfect picture.
She put former action icon and current California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on top of a mountain, submerged black actress Whoopi Goldberg in a bath of milk and closed France's Versailles palace to shoot Kirsten Dunst posing as Marie-Antoinette.
Circus animals, fire, airplanes -- she was rarely denied a requested prop, however seemingly outrageous.
That kind of imagination, and the stylized, hyper-realistic portraits she produced, had a long line of celebrities, from Hollywood stars to Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, beating a path to Leibovitz's door.
Yet behind a facade of unlimited financial means, Leibovitz was spending her way into nightmare.
In what now appears as a disastrous decision to raise funds, Leibovitz took a 24-million-dollar loan from Art Capital Group (ACG) -- in effect a high-end pawn broker -- in December 2008 using her own photographs as collateral.
That debt is due September 8 and if she can't pay up, she could lose her life's work.
ACG, which specializes in making loans to owners of high value art works, is unlikely to adopt a soft line.
Leibovitz must "comply with the sales agreement she signed authorizing Art Capital to sell the fine art and real estate assets and to pay the invoices that are due," ACG spokesman Montieth Illingworth said in a statement.
The over-leveraged photographer not only risks losing her photo archives, which The New York Times estimates could be worth 50 million dollars, but also her house in the trendy Greenwich Village district of Manhattan and a second home outside the city.
If she is forced to declare bankruptcy, it will then be up to the courts to decide how to distribute the assets.
Banking giant Goldman Sachs entered the fray this week with a claim to own part of Leibovitz's debt.
ACG disputes that, but says Goldman Sachs could be invited to bid for the loan.
Leibovitz's career has few parallels. Her famous shoots include a nude portrait of John Lennon and Yoko Ono -- just before the Beatle was murdered -- and nude and pregnant actress Demi Moore.
Despite moving in such glamorous circles, Leibovitz has never been known for having a knack for finance.
When she was hired to shoot ads for American Express in the 1980s, it emerged she had been previously turned down by the company when applying for a credit card.
New York's chattering classes are aghast at the renowned photographer's downfall, making her the latest spectacular victim of the bad debt crisis and nationwide recession.
The weekly New York Magazine published a lengthy article recounting her perfectionism at work and her lavish personal taste, including an apartment on the banks of the Seine in Paris to please her lover, writer Susan Sontag, who died in 2004.
Anna Wintour, the equally famous editor of Vogue magazine, said in a documentary that Leibovitz was priceless.
"Budget is not something that enters into her consciousness, but it is worth it because at the end of the day, she gives you an image that nobody else can," said Wintour.