The photographic alchemy of Annie Leibovitz
By Jud Yalkut
Annie Leibovitz is an enigma, homespun or urbane, insouciant or deftly penetrating, but an enigma with a camera, a camera so incisive that it seems to absorb its subject’s soul. Her images capture American life and culture in ways commensurate with the attributes of her heroes, Henri-Cartier Bresson’s empathetic French both high and low and Robert Frank’s masterful eye on the scope of the American character.
“To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed,” wrote Susan Sontag, Leibovitz’s lifetime companion and friend, in her now classic Plato’s Cave essay “On Photography.” On the occasion of Leibovitz’s retrospective exhibition showing at the Wexner Center for the Arts through Dec. 30, Wexner director Sherri Geldin amplified this photographic power by acknowledging that her images “have become so familiar that sometimes we are not even aware that it is the Annie Leibovitz photograph we have in our head.”
A project in process for fifteen months, the Wexner selection is the first time that Leibovitz has allowed her “Master Set,” covering the highlights of her career over more than three decades, to be shown, masterfully staged by Wexner Senior curator Bill Horrigan. “I’ve never done a show like this,” commented Leibovitz during the preview, “In my mind the ‘Master Set’ would end up in museums and institutions, but now I can’t believe how much is here.”
Much of the “Master Set” – 156 images she selected as the definitive edition of her work from 1968 to 2009 – come from her early years over a decade at Rolling Stone magazine and her tenure at a revived Vanity Fair. For Rolling Stone, Leibovitz went on its namesake band’s tour in 1972 with her hero Robert Frank, and again in 1975 when Mick Jagger called her. “I was young and naïve,” she reflects, “and didn’t really know how music was made, and there I was, a young woman with a band of men on the road. I really believed I should become a chameleon, a part of what was going on, and it was the stupidest thing I ever did – it took me about eight years to get off that tour after it was over – I really almost died.”
Those amazing pictures succeeded in capturing being with a rock n’ roll band, “and you really only have to do it once” she concluded. Also during that period, she was one of the last people to get credentials for the White House when Nixon was leaving, with her co-assignee Hunter Thompson, who never showed up. Most of the pictures from that day show Nixon standing in the doorway of the departing helicopter. “I was standing in the grass and most of the photographers had already left,” Leibovitz remembered. “They were walking away, and I saw what was happening with the guards rolling up the red carpet.” This became one of most haunting political images ever taken.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, while California governor, brought his white horse to his portrait shooting, and posed in profile bare-chested with white jodhpurs, “like his body came from Mars,” commented Leibovitz. The most extraordinary black-and-white portrait is of Keith Haring, nude and covered in white paint with broad black strokes, striking a bestial madman’s pose in a similarly painted room. “He was all dressed up and no place to go,” said Leibovitz. “So I said let’s go somewhere, go to Times Square, jump out of the car and shoot real fast. No one paid any attention, a naked man in Times Square; it was beautiful because when he was all painted he felt he had armor on.”
Leibovitz’s empathy with her subjects is legendary, as her perceptions seem to transcend Bresson’s concept of “the decisive moment.” This empathy becomes almost a mutual conspiracy of achievement, as when she photographed Queen Elizabeth II in Buckingham Palace in 2007 and who, in the midst of busy royal day, posed calmly for twenty minutes and thanked Leibovitz when the session was concluded.
Her early love for dance, heightened by her mother taking her to dance classes by old Ballets Russes performers, emerged in full bloom when she photographed Mikhail Baryshnikov with a group of dancers over 30 or 40. While Mischa’s knees were shot, Mark Morris choreographed a piece with him where he’s picked up and carried off stage, immortalized in an image on the beach of Cumberland Island, Ga. with Rod Besserer. “He’s one of the most beautiful men I’ve ever met in my life,” she says
Some images are extremely personal, like the portrait her mother thought might
“make me look old” but which she loved later when surrounded by people during a book signing at the Corcoran Gallery. The second major portion of the Wexner exhibition are the 78 images in the “Pilgrimage” series organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, here arranged salon style and mostly of cultural and natural sites in the United States and Canada, including the sweep of Niagara Falls from Ontario, Canada, Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty,” the compass belonging to Lewis and Clark, Sigmund Freud’s couch in London, Emily Dickinson’s herbarium, Old Faithful, Martha’s Graham’s studio and Thoreau’s bed. This series was in consonance with Sontag’s autobiographical essay “Pilgrimage” expressing her feeling of intellectual isolation in suburban America.
Leibovitz has stated that she wants to do 23 pictures a year, portrait-wise, and that her next project is “Artists in the Studios” which she has started already. “We’ve lost a lot of great artists like Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly,” she says, “and sometimes you don’t see the artists but just the rooms, like in the ‘Pilgrimages.’ I feel like a kid in a sandbox, going out to meet these people.”
The Wexner Center for the Arts is located at 1871 N. High St. at 15th Ave. in Columbus, Ohio. Admission is $8 for adults (18-64), $6 for seniors, and free to all Thursdays from 4-8 pm and the first Sunday of the month. Gallery hours are 11 am-6 pm Tuesday-Wednesday and Sunday; 11 am-8 pm Thursday-Saturday. (614) 292-3535. For more information visit wexarts.org.
Reach DCP visual art critic Jud Yalkut at JudYalkut@DaytonCityPaper.com.