Unlike so many subjects in PBS "American Masters" series, "Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens" is actually alive, and sister Barbara's benevolent portrait brushes aside the nasty bits to focus on Annie's artistry. Her private life is hinted at in "Life Through a Lens" but remains a nagging mystery.

An insightful look into how an artist ultimately confronts life and loss through a lens, Barbara Leibovitz’s smart docu on her sister Annie follows her evolution from bubbly art school student to denizen of American photography’s upper echelon. Unlike so many subjects in PBS “American Masters” series, this one is actually alive, and Barbara’s benevolent portrait brushes aside the nasty bits to focus on Annie’s artistry. Her private life — rampant drug abuse, a relationship with Susan Sontag, raising three children alone — is hinted at in “Life Through a Lens” but remains a nagging mystery.

Leibovitz was rock ‘n’ roll’s premier chronicler as the chief photographer of Rolling Stone in the 1970s; her transformation to portrait artist for Vanity Fair provides the timeline for “Life.” She is shown choosing pics for a retrospective book; setting up cover shots with the cast of “Marie Antoinette,” George Clooney and Julia Roberts; and conversing with Mikhail Baryshnikov about “truth.”

Her varied subjects, whether Keith Richards, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Hilary Clinton, are universal in their praise: She’s unobtrusive, and when she is allowed to follow someone, she comes up with great, illuminating shots.

Leibovitz moved around the globe as a youth, as her father was an Air Force officer, and her view of the world was often through the prism of a car window, a framing device that would inform much of her early work. She attended art school in San Francisco in 1967 and, after attending a photography seminar, gave up her brushes for lenses.

Situated in the peace, love and revolution epicenter, Leibovitz took an Henri Cartier-Bresson approach to protests and parties, exquisitely capturing the mundane of the hippie world.

That led to her working for Rolling Stone, where she came to define the San Francisco-based mag’s look with keen portraits of the Rolling Stones on the road, the White House on the day Nixon resigned and, most significantly, her sessions with John Lennon in the early ’70s and again just hours before he was shot in December 1980.

Her turning point, historians and critics say, was a Rolling Stone cover with Bette Midler in a sea of roses. Its acceptance gave her permission to put her subjects in different revealing situations, a strategy she employed when she did a widely praised series of photos of poets for Life magazine.

As she recounts the deaths of her lover, writer-intellectual Sontag, and of her father or plays with her toddler children, she never sets down the camera. Same is true when she visits Sarajevo and returns with a bit of a distaste for celebrity portraiture.

Her mind’s eye and the lens have melded into one for her — an occupational hazard? — and what others carry as memories, she possesses as snapshots and portraits, in which hues and lighting are discussed as much as the emotions that enveloped a death or a day at the pool.

Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens

PBS, Wed. Jan. 3, 9 p.m.

Production

Filmed by Thirteen/WNET, Adirondack Pictures, Ranoah Prods. Executive producers, Paul Hardart, Tom Hardart, Susan Lacy; producer, Barbara Leibovitz; co-producer, Jessica Cohen; director/writer, Barbara Leibovitz.

Crew

Camera, Eddie Marritz, Jaime Hellman, Ian Vollman, Leibovitz; editors, Kristen Huntlery, Jed Parker; music, Gail Schoen. Running time: 90 MIN.

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