MIAMI - Annie Leibovitz, called America's most famous photographer, knew she was putting herself out there with her new book "A Photographer's Life, 1990-2005" (Random House, $75). It merges her two worlds: There are the glossy shots of celebrities such as Nicole Kidman, Uma Thurman and Brad Pitt, and the sweet, gritty, sometimes heartbreaking images of her own family and her late companion Susan Sontag.
Leibovitz knew it would take a lot out of her to offer "the closest thing to who I am that I've ever done," as she says in her introduction.
But you get a sense it turned out to be even more taxing than she bargained for as you watch her steel herself for yet another conversation about those over-analyzed photos of Sontag in the last stages of cancer and as a barely recognizable corpse in a dress of Fortuny pleats.
How did she manage to stand before her love's coffin and take those pictures?
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"At some level it was very peculiar. Have you ever seen someone die? Susan wasn't in the body any more. All those things are true. She wasn't there. It was more a symbol of Susan, a record of Susan. I shot them because I do feel a responsibility to documenting. And this kind of photography has been a tradition since photography was invented. But those weren't the most difficult pictures of Susan. They were the ones of Susan at the very end in a hospital room."
Intimacy, Leibovitz suggests in "A Photographer's Life," is not her strong suit. "(Richard) Avedon knew how to talk to people. What to talk to them about. ... But I'm so busy looking, I can't talk. I never developed that gift."
And yet she's being a trooper today, searching for just the right language to express what she's feeling as she deals with life without her mate and father (Sontag died in late 2004; her father in early 2005). And as she suffers the aftermath of a book that has brought her critical acclaim, but also criticism.
There are some who say she went too far in exposing Sontag at her most vulnerable, and some who say she and Sontag never went far enough in spelling out to the public that they were involved in a lesbian relationship.
But the images in the book more than own up to the intimate nature of their life together: Susan peacefully sprawled across a couch in sweats, Susan naked in a tub, a hand over her mastectomy scar, Susan on a rumpled bed. And there are the photos Susan snapped of Leibovitz, including one of her naked and very pregnant with her first child, Sarah, whom she had at 51. She later had twins, Susan and Samuelle, through a surrogate.
"What makes the book beautiful for me is that it came out of something very pure," says Leibovitz, 57. "I was just so happy to have found those pictures, to see what my life was and to be able to start moving forward from there. In the moment, the feeling just sort of takes over you and you just do it. But later it starts feeling different. I certainly don't want to expose my children again like I just did. I don't think I'm going to do that again. I mean, that's it. I've done it."
Leibovitz says she knows Sontag would not have allowed the images to be published if she had been alive. But did Sontag have a sense that Leibovitz might use them this way later on?
"Susan was a writer and I was a photographer. She knew who I was and I knew who she was. She would get mad at me because I wasn't taking enough pictures. And yeah, it's different now, because she is dead. I really edited this book as if she was standing behind me," Leibovitz said.
"My only regret is this weird thing, that she's not here to see the tremendous response to the work. Susan was a very private person, but she loved a good controversy, she loved a good fight. She respected my work - sometimes, sometimes not, like in any relationship. But I know she would be proud of me right now."
There's a simple reason Leibovitz finally decided to include the most difficult shots of Sontag. "I spoke to a psychiatrist who worked at Sloan-Kettering Hospital helping people die. She told me she saw that every day and it's as much a part of life as being born. I realized how important they were as part of Susan's whole story."
Leibovitz says she's glad to get back to basics, focusing on assignment work such as the upcoming Vanity Fair Hollywood issue.
"I want to go back and do better assignment work. I don't think I was paying attention to it as well as I could have."
Will she ever be interested in another - well, not partner, because she hates the word. But does she foresee being coupled again?
"I'm not interested in looking for anyone or anything else at this time," Leibovitz says. And her voice cracks. "I can't imagine when and if."
She's trying to just keep moving.
"I have the children. You don't really have time to think when you have children. Which is good. You use different muscles with kids. I wanted them because I come from a big family - and because I had a lot of love I wanted to place somewhere."