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Leaving Out Part of the Liebovitz Story

I don’t know if this BBC article is typical of all the coverage of Annie Leibovitz’s financial trouble, but it seems like some of the media is covering only part of the story.

Annie Leibovitz - A Photographers Life Press Conference

Ms Leibovitz’s most famous images include a photograph of John Lennon taken hours before he was assassinated, and a nude portrait of the pregnant actress Demi Moore for the cover of Vanity Fair magazine.

But the millions she has made from her work have been accompanied by a history of unpaid bills and taxes.

She has multimillion-dollar mortgages on properties she owns in New York.

And her plans to renovate three town houses in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village landed her with a $15m (£9m) lawsuit from a neighbour.

There’s something missing here.

This Globe and Mail article get in a mention, but only in an insulting fashion, between quotation marks.

Her notoriety as a perfectionist earned her scores of lucrative jobs, with some contracts totalling millions of dollars in salary plus lavish expense tabs, and rumoured six-figure single-day jobs. Ms. Leibovitz was known to occasionally shoulder the costs of a shoot herself, but more often billed them to her employers, be it Condé Nast or Rolling Stone.

But Ms. Leibovitz was also a noted spendthrift, amassing three townhouses in New York’s Greenwich Village, a sprawling property in upstate New York, a Chelsea penthouse and a large nearby studio, as well as a Paris atelier overlooking the Seine. She also has three children and spent many years as self-described “lovers” with the late writer and intellectual Susan Sontag.

This Times Online article is a bit more respectful of Leibovitz’s relationship with Sontag, but then goes on to cast her financial troubles as a “necessary recalibration” and a sign of the times.

Leibovitz’s financial meltdown presents us with a fresh reflection of the times in which we live. Financially wildly overstretched, maybe not fully understanding the implications of her debt arrangements, she has clearly been badly advised or perhaps not advised at all. But as Bailey points out, it is just money. Leibovitz, as we have now seen from her personal photo albums, has magnificent talent. It can still rescue her, and all this may effect a welcome recalibration of her work.

The point that these articles leave out is that — while she may have spent unwisely and made bad financial decisions, or focused on her art at the expense of her business. — Leibovitz wouldn’t be in nearly as much trouble if she and Sontag had been able to marry.

The rich and famous aren’t spared either. Annie Leibowitz made headlines when she pawned the copyrights to her work to pay off debts. But part of those debts stemmed from the 2004 death of her partner, Susan Sontag, and the taxes Leibowitz was required to pay on what she inherited from Sontag because they were not (and could not be) legal spouses.

As Suze Orman pointed out in her Valentine’s Day wish for gay marriage, same-sex couples do not have the same privileges as straight married couples when it comes to inheritance. If your partner passes away and leaves her estate to you, you have to pay up to 50 percent of the value of your inheritance in taxes. However, if you and your partner were recognized as a married couple, you wouldn’t have to pay a dime. And it is precisely this unjust double standard that got Annie Leibovitz into financial trouble.

When Sontag died in 2004, she bequeathed several properties to Leibovitz, who was forced to pony up half of their value to keep them. Yes, she makes a nice chunk of change from Vanity Fair, and yes, she probably could have just sold the properties when the market was good in 2004, but that’s not really the point. The point is she should never have been in the position of paying or selling to not pay as much in the first place. Her wealth and poor decision-making are incidental.

And, if she and Sontag had been a married heterosexual couple — even if they married as Sontag lay on her deathbed — she wouldn’t have been in that position.

Put differently, if Susan Sontag had been Sam Sontag and Leibovitz had be heterosexual and legally able to become “Mrs. Sontag” her current financial troubles might still exist, but might not be a deep or as dire as they are.

Funny, how that gets left out of the story. Not so funny that there are thousands of LGBT couples who are neither rich nor famous, and whose troubles won’t make the news, but suffer the same double standard.

Not so funny that nobody sees fit to mention it.

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