Leibovitz’s Print Sales Not Helping Her Debt Troubles

Annie Leibovitz has been trying to extract herself from a financial hole by offering master sets of 157 prints for more than $3 million each, but collectors are apparently balking, according to a recent story by John Gapper in the Financial Times. And at recent auctions, he reports, Leibovitz’s prints have been fetching less than $10,000, and sometimes even less than $1,000. “Despite all her celebrity and talent,” Gapper writes, “Leibovitz lacks earning powers as an artist.”

The reason for that, he essentially says, is that she hasn’t sucked up to the art world. Although she’s had relationships with various art galleries, she has devoted her energy almost entirely to commercial and editorial work, and failed to take the sage marketing advice of dealers to print very limited editions and sign them.

Gapper’s sources raise questions about the intrinsic artistic value of Leibovitz’s commercial work–most of it celebrity portraits. But he points out that Irving Penn and Richard Avedon managed to succeed as both artists and commercial photographers. Leibovitz could do the same, Gapper suggests, if only she could cultivate a perception of scarcity.

But Gapper overlooks the fact that Avedon and Penn made it in the fine art world on the strength of their personal work, not their editorial or advertising work. That isn’t to say that Leibovitz’s images of Demi Moore and Queen Elizabeth and other celebrities don’t have value. To her commercial clients, her work is worth quite a lot. But it’s hard to imagine how she can clamber into the pantheon of notable art photographers on the strength of those images alone, even if she does make amends with dealers and gallerists.

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