Annie Leibovitz @ the Corcoran Gallery of Art
Let's get this out of the way: Whether you like it or not, Annie Leibovitz is an American Icon. Her intimate portrait photographs of the famous are so pervasive that even if you don't know the name, you're guaranteed to have seen her work, and lots of it. She began her career with Rolling Stone magazine when it was in its infancy, photographing the musically talented, and quickly became known for her deconstruction of human facades. A portrait of famed dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, whose knees had not suffered well the brutality of decades of leaps and pirouettes, shows him being lifted high into the air by a colleague, imitating the peak to which he had brought his artform and the level of respect he continued to earn, even if his body could no longer prove it.
This photo, taken in 1990, marks the historical beginning of the exhibition A Photographer's Life: 1990-2005, opening at the Corcoran Gallery of Art tomorrow. Its conceptualization began a few years prior, when in a very short period of time, both Leibovitz's father and her decade-long lover, Susan Sontag, died, and her three children were born. Leibovitz is candid about the raw emotions that preceded this show, even going so far as to say that if she had the chance to do it over again, she wouldn't.
The answer isn't surprising, given the volume of personal moments included in the exhibit. While half the gallery contains the images by which we know her -- a nude and very pregnant Demi Moore, a cinematically brooding Al Pacino, a stately General Schwarzkopf in spic 'n span whites -- the other half is filled with personal snapshots, from a day at the beach to Sontag's last days as she battled and lost her fight with cancer.
The snapshots could, by themselves, be about as exciting as flipping through your great Aunt's photo album -- unspectacular images of people you don't know, doing mundane activities ("And here's the sandcastle Jimmy made. Isn't it great? A born architect, that one."). But here, nailed to the wall between Brad Pitt and Scarlett Johansson, both of whom are posed laying prostrate in elaborate get-ups and looking at us in some unverifiable degree of uncomfortableness, the snapshots turn her exposing lens around. It's not that we get an inside peek into the life of this American Icon (well, maybe a little), it's that this precisely is her talent, so it's almost a you-got-what's-comin'-to-ya moment, and the fact that it pains her makes it all the more important. If it didn't, the balance would be shattered, and the exhibit would be one of Vanity Fair covers with inexplicable Kodak Moments wedged between, interrupting our superficial feast of the rich and famous.
The exhibit also shows her skill as "one of the foremost documenters of our generation," in her own words. Her portraits and her snapshots capture moments in a timeline, in two different ways. First, let's take the portraits: while the friends and families of these famous people may disagree, their true cultural importance is the moment in time in which they are a celebrity. Marilyn Monroe may still be famous, but pictures of her invoke the 50s and 60s: a moment in time. So Leibovitz has the enviable duty of capturing these culturally relevant moments that mark 1990 (Stormin' Norman), that mark 2005 (The White Stripes). She gives us the sleek, beautiful people in sleek, beautiful photographs on the covers of magazines so we can buy them and take them home and be a part of the whole culture ourselves.
And yet her talent lies in not just checking off dates on the calendar, but enriching the timeline with depth, because she is able to capture the intimate nature of a persona in one, elegant photograph. Leonardo DiCaprio is shown smiling into the camera in a black turtleneck, holding a swan whose neck has curled around his own, entwined with the animal the way he views his life as a whole entwined with all of nature. A portrait of Pres. Bush and his cabinet taken in December 2001 shows the group, not in the Oval Office, as they'd suggested, but in the less formal Cabinet Room. Gathered around the front of the corner of the long table, Condoleezza Rice sits in the center, like the unsure matriarch of the men looming over her from all sides, while Pres. Bush takes up the most space, standing with shoulders squarely to the lens, hands on hips to push his coat back so his Presidential Seal belt buckle glints in the light, cocky grin firmly in place. It looks like a portrait of the Sopranos family. (Oh right, she did that, too.)
Leibovitz's snapshots, on the other hand, are the flip-side. They capture only a fraction of a second in a life. In them we see nothing more than a hiking trip or a lazy afternoon, but displayed together they create her life. Unlike the formal portraits, these must be numerous to show depth, to show the series of events that make up our real, complicated lives that don't fit nicely into a celebrity persona peg made to fit into the culture hole.
A highlight of the exhibit is the series of portraits of the Queen of England, taken just before her sojourn in the States earlier this year for the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement. Since they're so recent, this is the first leg of the exhibit's tour in which they've been displayed. In a rare moment, Leibovitz encouraged the Queen to remove her crown (a nude?) and the result is still a noble woman standing calm and regal on the land she rules, no matter the somewhat tumultuous sky behind her.
The Corcoran Gallery of Art is located at 500 17th Street NW and is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Monday, with extended hours until 9 p.m. on Thursdays. See the web site for admission information. A Photographer's Life is currently exhibited alongside the work of another iconic photographer, Ansel Adams.
Top image by Heather Goss. Brad Pitt, Las Vegas, 1994 and Susan at the House on Hedges Lane, Wainscott, Long Island, 1988, chromogenic prints, courtesy the Corcoran Gallery and copyright Annie Leibovitz.
Monday, November 5, 2007
Snapshot of Brilliance
This is a great shot from the Post with Annie Leibovitz as she took us through her exhibition at the Corcoran. As a journalist, she does through photography what I can only dream to do with a microphone, capture the very core of a person or story in a single moment.