Gallery  February 23, 2019  Jordan Riefe

Annie Leibovitz on Documenting, Making History

Jordan Riefe

Installation view, Annie Leibovitz The Early Years, 1970-1983: Archive Project No. 1

Four thousand photos is almost too many, but Annie Leibovitz The Early Years, 1970-1983: Archive Project No. 1, at Hauser & Wirth, Los Angeles, through April 14, has more than that. In fact, there are so many that some are placed at ankle height, requiring young knees for viewing, while others sit six feet and above. High or low, they’re all worth seeing. 

“I did a very liberal edit. If I was interested in anything for any reason, I checked it off, put a marker on it and printed it to a five by seven print,” Leibovitz says about the show, which originated in 2017 at LUMA Foundation in Arles, France. It begins where Rolling Stone magazine begins, black-and-white photos taken on the fly–Eldridge Cleaver, Allen Ginsberg, Grace Slick and Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane. By 1972, she’s teamed with Hunter S. Thompson to cover the Democratic National Convention for what would become the author’s gonzo classic, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72. A year later, Nixon’s resignation, Marine One departing the White House once and for all. 

© Annie Leibovitz, The Early Years, 1970 –1983: Archive Project No. 1 Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth Photo: Fredrik Nilsen Studio

Installation view, ‘Annie Leibovitz. The Early Years, 1970 –1983: Archive Project No. 1’, Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2019

“History takes over, it's bigger than you. You become very responsible to history,” Leibovitz tells Art & Object as she takes advantage of a calm that has settled over the gallery, hours before opening night. “By looking at it this way, by making it a stream-of-conscious river, I think I had to come to terms with I could not do the decisive moment. I couldn’t get that moment. It had to be a river. It was kind of like a storyline. I think the photographs needed each other. I don't know if that’s good or bad. It's hard to pick out an individual picture that could hold up without the ones around it.”

Studio portraits exemplifying Leibovitz’ body of work also defined the 1980s and 90s. They’re absent here, but will presumably follow in an Archive Project No. 2. Even so, impromptu snaps, like the one of Mick Jagger in an elevator on the 1975 Rolling Stones tour, hint at the photographer’s uncanny ability to comment on her subject while also commenting on the public’s perception of it. 

“It’s not like this goes away. It’s packaged inside your head,” she says of the early work and how it informed the studio portraits that came later. “The reason I think this show talks so much about photography is it shows the evolution from doing this kind of staring at something and photographing what’s in front of you, and developing a point of view and thought process. And then you start to go into the portraiture, which really came out of doing the covers for Rolling Stone.” 

Jordan Riefe

Annie Leibovitz at Hauser & Wirth

Her image of artist Keith Haring in a primal stance atop a coffee table in a room painted in his signature style, himself naked and painted to blend in, is a definitive portrait. Echoing it is Steve Martin, artfully posed against a large-scale abstract-expressionist work by Franz Kline, its broad black strokes bleeding onto his elegant white tuxedo, which speaks to the comedian’s passion for art. Meryl Streep in white face, pinching her cheek and chin, comments directly on her profession, while Whoopi Goldberg’s face and limbs emerging from a tub full of milk captures the comedienne’s sense of irony and playfulness. And nothing embodies a macho persona like the black-and-white profile of a shirtless cigar-chomping Arnold Schwarzenegger atop a steed. 

“I feel like I’m working with people who are, if not good at what they do, the best at what they do. They want the same thing I want. They want to do something good,” she explains. “If there's any problem or issue, it’s time. I’m not against asking them to come back. I don’t always get it, but sometimes I feel like I want to throw away what I did and do it a second time. And that’s all an evolution as well, trying to do something that feels authentic and natural.”

While most photographers consider a covershot the Holy Grail, these days Leibovitz demurs. “I think the cover is a different animal,” she hedges. “I almost prefer not to shoot the cover, if I can avoid it, cause it has so many agendas to it.” 

© Annie Leibovitz, The Early Years, 1970 –1983: Archive Project No. 1 Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth Photo: Fredrik Nilsen Studio

Installation view, ‘Annie Leibovitz. The Early Years, 1970 –1983: Archive Project No. 1’, Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2019

In 1989, while photographing the author for the booksleeve of AIDS and Its Metaphors, Leibovitz met Susan Sontag. Over the next 15 years they raised three daughters together, until Sontag’s death in 2004. Becoming a mother forced Leibovitz to view her work differently. “When you have children, things change. Not a lot, but they change enough that you’re doing stuff that you’re leaving behind for future generations.”

A devotee to Sontag’s collection of essays from the 1970’s, On Photography, at first she was intimidated by the author’s powerful intellect. Sontag once told her, “You’re good, but you can be better.” The two traveled to Jordan, Egypt, Italy and Paris where Leibovitz purchased an apartment. The influence of Sontag is apparent in the show through images of cultural figures like Philip Glass, Mark Morris and Mikhail Baryshnikov, as well as a portrait of Sontag herself. 

Installation view, ‘Annie Leibovitz. The Early Years, 1970 –1983: Archive Project No. 1’, Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2019

Installation view, ‘Annie Leibovitz. The Early Years, 1970 –1983: Archive Project No. 1’, Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2019

“I’m so proud of those years I had with her. I’m not too sure I could be exactly what she wished I could be. Cause she was really, really tough. She had a profound effect on my work. I went to Sarajevo because of her,” Leibovitz says, recalling a 1993 trip during the conflict. “I got more deeply into the dance world and the arts. Robert Wilson became important. Peter Sellars. This whole world of art was really powerful. And she really loved New York culture. She was out there all the time. I just wanted to go home. She ate it up. Look, she put up with me.”

In On Photography, Sontag writes about the ubiquity of photographs in our culture with a prescient nod to our own age, where any Instagram feed has the same stream-of-conscious vibe as the Hauser & Wirth show. Fine arts photographers like Catherine Opie have expressed alarm at the split-second gaze by which images are consumed at present, but Leibovitz remains unfazed.

“There’s a lot of photography and it’s exploding, but it’s also good! I think it’s interesting to have all this imagery out there. I think it’s powerful. I’m a huge fan of what the iPhone and the Google phone can do. How can you not be interested? There’s room for all of this. I don’t fight it.”

About the Author

Jordan Riefe

Jordan Riefe has been covering the film business since the late 90s for outlets like Reuters, THR.com, and the Wrap. He wrote a movie that was produced in China in 2007. Riefe currently serves as West Coast theatre critic for The Hollywood Reporter, while also covering art and culture for The Guardian, Cultured Magazine, LA Weekly and KCET Artbound.

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