CBC Investigates

Hollywood stars, dancers and Trump — The Leibovitz collection Nova Scotia owns but can't display

The catalogue of the Leibovitz Book Collection, obtained by CBC News, includes a wide range of subjects from Hollywood celebrities, artists and Olympians to writers and political leaders.

About 10 per cent of collection at risk of immediate deterioration, some of it may last for centuries

Photographer Annie Leibovitz takes the press on a tour of her exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art on Oct. 19, 2006. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

Fans of modern dance will be thrilled to learn that one of the most frequent subjects of the Annie Leibovitz photo collection — currently in indefinite storage at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia — is New York dancer and choreographer Mark Morris.

Everyone else will probably be puzzled.

Leibovitz, arguably the world's most famous celebrity photographer, is popularly known for her playfully staged images of Hollywood stars at the height of their glittering careers.

But the catalogue of her 2,000-photo collection, recently provided to CBC News by the gallery, shows the huge variety of subjects she put under her lens in the course of a four-decade career.

(Graphic by CBC, images from Reuters, Canadian Press)

Caught in a quagmire

"The most illustrious figures in politics, art, sports, literature, entertainment and so on," said photographer Adrian Fish, chair of media arts at Halifax's NSCAD University, after examining the catalogue.

"Annie Leibovitz had incredible access to these figures. And I think they are the defining figures of the late 20th and early 21st century."

But whether the public will ever get to see them remains an open question. A CBC News investigation revealed last month how the collection was caught in a quagmire involving a federal tribunal that has derailed prospects of an exhibition.

An analysis of the art gallery's Leibovitz catalogue shows it includes 33 photos of dancer Morris. That number is matched only by U.S. star sprinter Carl Lewis who also appears 33 times. The collection includes 32 photos of Mick Jagger.

A portrait of Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi as the Blues Brothers is projected on a wall above reporters as a collection of artwork by photographer Annie Leibovitz is donated to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax on June 6, 2013. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Rare Cibachrome images

To an expert lover of photography, some of the 2,070 written descriptions pop like a flash bulb.

"I was quite dazzled actually," said Fish.

Twenty-five images are Cibachrome prints, a rare format Fish has never seen face to face.

"Apparently they're striking images, they're very saturated colours, very high quality," he said.

The Cibachrome images include portraits of Michael Jackson, Tennessee Williams, Demi Moore and Donald and Ivana Trump.

Potential problem with 250 images

But Fish's expert eye also spotted a potential problem with 250 of the photographs, which are black-and-white images printed on resin-coated paper.

A member of the press inspects portraits of William S. Burroughs during the press preview for an Annie Leibovitz exhibition on Oct. 19, 2006, at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

"Depending on how they are printed and processed, [they] have a lifespan of 25 or 30 years, and given the dates of some of those images, they'd be very close to the end of their lifespan, from an archival point of view," he said.

The oldest resin-coated prints include images of Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia in 1971, R&B pioneer Ray Charles in 1972 and then-bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1975.

Fish said it's impossible to stop the deterioration of resin-coated prints, but it is possible to scan and reprint them on archive-quality paper.

Digital prints 'could last forever'

Fish says the remaining 1,820 prints, roughly 90 per cent of the collection, should last much longer.

He says 512 older archival-quality prints would have a typical lifespan of 80 years under ideal conditions.

U.S. photographer Annie Leibovitz takes a photograph with her mobile phone during the launch of her international exhibition tour in London, England, on Oct. 28, 2015. (Andy Rain/EPA)

Fish says the 1,308 digital prints created for the collection in 2012 could last indefinitely.

"This was an effort to optimize the quality of the images visually, and also for purposes of archivability," he said.

"If it's pH neutral and archival, it could last forever," he said.

The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia would not answer questions about the condition of the collection. 

In an email, spokesperson Colin Stinson said most of the collection was "prepared for appropriate archival storage by the Leibovitz studio prior to their delivery to the Gallery."

He said the other works are "properly stored in archival sleeves or larger archival boxes for their protection."

Next steps?

The collection was donated to the AGNS in 2013 but any plans to show the work were put on hold after the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board declined — on four occasions — to certify the bulk of the work as culturally significant.

Singer Rihanna prepares for a photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz in Havana on May 28, 2015. (Reuters)

A CBC News Investigation revealed last month that the Toronto family who donated the photos to the AGNS had agreed to pay Leibovitz $4.75 million for the collection, with half the money contingent on its certification.

While the gallery owns the photographs, it has suggested Leibovitz retains copyright and can dictate if and when they are exhibited.

Stinson said the gallery has "reached out" to the artist and her studio to discuss next steps.

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About the Author

Jack Julian


Jack Julian is a data journalist in the Halifax newsroom. This is a new position, and he's excited about it. He likes surprises in his stories. Email: jack.julian@cbc.ca Twitter: @jackjulian