We are interested in celebrity portraits from two different angles: as art, and as a window into the lives of intriguing public figures. The work of Annie Leibovitz, the most celebrated of star portraitists, adds another dimension to our interest. Are her transformations -- Sting into New Guinea tribesman, Brian Wilson into Christ figure -- the result of the artist's imagination, the subject's self-image or the metamorphosis wrought by fame itself? Annie Leibovitz 1970-1990 (interview by Ingrid Sischy, HarperCollins, 232 pages, $60), which includes work seen previously in Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, provides plenty of food for thought. Some portraits play witty games with their subjects' images (artists Keith Haring and Christo are, for example, disguised as their own artwork). Others are more ambiguous and disturbing, including the cover image, of a nude John Lennon's leechlike embrace of his fully clothed, impassive wife. Like much of the Leibovitz oeuvre, it leaves us wondering just how much the photo reveals, and how much it conceals.
During her long career, Rollie McKenna has photographed just about everything: Vassar students under the trees, Southern shantytowns, Times Square at night, a hawking party in the Kuwaiti desert. But, like Annie Leibovitz, she is celebrated for her memorable photographs of creative personalities. When people think of poet Dylan Thomas, looking tousled and intense, or a dandified Tom Wolfe, with three-piece suit and brolly, they may be thinking of one of her portraits. For photography buffs, Rollie McKenna: A Life in Photography (Knopf, 280 pages, $50) is a twofer: a varied collection of the artist's best work, and an absorbing autobiography.
"Merchant Ivory" sounds like a politically incorrect bit of contraband, but film aficionados know the team of Ismail Merchant (an Indian producer), James Ivory (an American director) and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (a German-born screenwriter) as the creators of intelligent, beautifully crafted films for grown-ups. Probably best known for films about India ("Heat and Dust," "Bombay Talkie") and classy literary adaptations ("Room With a View," "The Europeans"), the team, as might be expected from their disparate backgrounds, has produced a varied body of work. The Films of Merchant Ivory (Robert Emmet Long, Abrams, 208 pages, $45) features biographies of the major players and a film-by-film examination of their work, from "Venice: Themes and Variations" (1957) to "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge" (1990). There are a few surprises here; I hadn't realized that the company that brought us Forster and James also was responsible for products like "The Wild Party" with Raquel Welch, and such chronicles of modern weirdness as "Slaves of New York."
Looking at other people's travel albums, reading their notes about where they've been and who they've seen . . . sounds like a yawn, right? Not so, when the traveler was the fascinating Cole Porter. This particular "album," Travels with Cole Porter (text and photographs by Jean Howard, introduction by George Eells, Abrams, 216 pages, $39.95), is the chronicle of a friendship, and of a particular act of friendship: In 1954, Ms. Howard suggested to Porter, who was despondent over his wife's recent death, that a "grand tour" might be just the thing to lift his spirits. They did two, in 1955 and '56, taking in European capitals, Egypt, the Greek Islands, the Holy Land and other locales. During the trips, Ms. Howard kept diaries and took copious duotone pictures, which have not been published before now. There's a lot of scenery and star-schmoozing, and a close-up view of a leisurely style of travel few of us can experience. But there's an elegiac feel to the book; this Porter is aging and disabled, not the dapper cafe-society icon of earlier decades.
The "Unseen Beatles"? Is there any aspect of the lives and work of once-ubiquitous quartet that has remained unseen, unprobed, unmarketed? Bob Whitaker's photographs in The Unseen Beatles (Collins, 160 pages, $40) were, in fact, seen by millions. And several are remembered well, at least by this former Beatlemaniac. Even his banned baby-butcher cover for "Yesterday and Today" is famous. (OK, notorious.) But these pictures have remained unseen for a generation. Mr. Whitaker, the young Australian who became Brian Epstein's "house photographer" from 1964 to '66, became a farmer in 1972, and stacked all his old photos in a chicken shed. There they have remained until now. What a lovely collection -- how young they (and we!) were. You'll want to crank up your old copy of "Rubber Soul" while you read this.