I wasn’t feeling well this morning so I stayed in bed a little longer than usual, indulging in The Today Show. Though we are at war with two nations, are wrestling with health-care reform and facing environmental catastrophe, the BIG STORY is Tiger Wood’s “half-naked body” on the cover of Vanity Fair. Okay, so it’s pretty transparent why the editors chose to put this photograph on the cover now, though Annie Leibovitz shot Woods in 2006. We get that. What is remarkable to me as a photographer is the abject surprise by the talking heads on NBC that Tiger has a body under the Polo shirts everyone has become accustomed to.
Comment after vapid comment revolved around Tiger’s demeanor (he isn’t smiling in the photo). His bare-chestedness (“we’re used to seeing him in a Polo Shirt!”) The Today Show hosts seemed dumb-founded that Tiger has “another side – a dark side“) and that he had kept it “hidden”. The newscasters were similarly perplexed and offered snippets which rendered Tiger as somebody other than the “hero we have come to know through the media”. One of them said, in his defense, “He is, after all an athlete”.
Leibovitz offered an explanation: “I wanted to show his focus”. Too bad she had to defend herself.
As people we know that everybody is multi-faceted. We have many dimensions to our personalities. A good portrait photographer will mine for the hidden aspects of a subject’s personality. One of the things that makes Leibovitz’s portraits so strong is that she shows us a side of her subjects that is new to us. This makes them more intriguing, and it offers us a sense of intimacy with her celebrity portraits that we may wish we had with the celebrities themselves. It is often stated about portraiture that each portrait is really a self-portrait. That a photographer will often put so much of herself into the shoot by directing the subject to appear a specific way which conforms to the photographers pre-conceived notions of who that person is that it is more mirrored self-expression than descriptive portraiture. This is a common concept in photography and should be factored in when viewing any portrait.
Tiger Woods is not a 2-dimensional character. That this is disturbing to many is disturbing to me. But the most interesting aspect of this story, and the most comforting is that it proves the enduring power of the still image.