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The Fall of Annie Leibovitz

As she teeters on the brink of bankruptcy, columnists try to understand how the renowned photographer lost it all.

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Annie Leibovitz is not only considered one of the greatest photographers of her time--who could forget the images of a naked and pregnant Demi Moore?--but a huge commercial success as well, earning about $2 million a year. And now she is in danger of defaulting on a $24 million dollar loan, and on the brink of financial ruin. Yesterday, Bloomberg reported that she may even be forced to hand over the creative rights to much of her life's work to settle her debts. A story in this month's New York Magazine tried to make sense of the photographer's crisis. Across the blogosphere, commentators wondered: How could this happen to Annie Leibovitz?

  • Rich Does Not Equal Financial Genius, writes finance blogger Felix Salmon. He argues that Leibovtiz's imperfect credit history means she never should have been given such a large loan to begin with. "It’s far too easy for people to simply assume, on the grounds of wealth alone, that therefore there must also be some degree of financial sophistication." Matt Yglesias agrees, writing, "We tend to treat successful businessmen as if they were omniscient central planners who'd gotten rich through their powers of clairvoyance." No, he said, " the whole point of having businessmen instead of central planners is that nobody's that omniscient--we let some flowers bloom and some chips fall and life moves on." But Joe Weisenthal says that's crazy talk. "It's not financial intelligence that you need in order to know that taking a $24 million loan with your life's work as collateral is a huge, huge financial decision. That's just normal intelligence."
  • We Are All Annie Leibovitz, writes Robert Frank at The Wall Street Journal. "Let's be honest. Annie Leibovitz succumbed to the same leverage-and-live-large lifestyle as the rest of rich and famous over the past 10 years. No matter how much money they were earning, it was never enough to support the hunger for yet another house or car or household staffer."
  • A Long Time Coming, says Andrew Goldman in New York Magazine. His profile reveals a woman willing to go to great lengths--financially speaking--to produce the perfect print. "Her bloated work expenses were a chronic concern," Goldman writes. "Anthony Accardi, Leibovitz's onetime printer, recalls that jobs were often rushed, like the time he had to show up to a lab at 3 a.m. to pick up film of Bill Clinton and have work prints ready by 7 a.m., a job so hurried that he billed Condé Nast three times his regular rate. Accardi was stunned by the number of work prints Leibovitz would order, and apparently so was Condé Nast."
  • Her Talent Will Prevail, said Tina Brown, who as the editor of Vanity Fair has actually worked with Leibovitz. Brown told NPR this week that Leibovitz's "extraordinary perfectionism" probably contributed to the artist's financial problems, but said the trait is part of her genius as well. "She really will do anything it takes, whether it means flying people around the country or going into overtime, or just bringing people to the set, or redoing the set, or redoing the whole thing three times, she just doesn’t really care as long as she gets her picture.” Brown admitted things had gotten out of hand, but sounded mostly lighthearted about the artist's future, and said Leibovitz will be fine because of her incredible talent. "“I don’t fear for Annie in the long run," she said.

In the art world, there are other questions.

  • Is a Firm Preying on Artists?  Just who, some ask, is Art Capital Group, the investment company that lent Leibovitz $24 million and may now own much of her life's work? A July story in PDN, a professional photography blog, suggested Art Capital Group may practice predatory practices with artists. "We all know Annie, but Art Capital Group? Who are they?"
  • Other Bad Deals  The art blog Art Observed said Leibovitz isn't the first artist embroiled in a lawsuit with the investment firm. "Whether it is due to the tender nature of the business that steps into the fields of intellectual property when dealing directly with artists, or the necessity on the company's side for firm and assertive approach in an economic environment that is nothing short of unstable; Art Capital Group seems to often be caught up in lawsuits with its clients."
  • 'Pawnshop'  In a February profile, The New York Times referred to Art Capital Group as a pawnshop, which owns the rights to numerous famous works of art. "This little-known corner of the art business is lightly regulated and highly litigious. But this has not dissuaded clients who have included rich collectors like Veronica Hearst, art galleries and prominent artists themselves, including Ms. Leibovitz and Julian Schnabel."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.