WOMEN: New Portraits

Review

WOMEN: New Portraits

By Larissa Archer April 26, 2016

It’s hard to guess the reasoning behind the exhibition layout of WOMEN: New Portraits, photographer Annie Leibovitz’s continuation of her 1999–2000 collaboration with critic and partner Susan Sontag, which is currently on display at the Presidio's Crissy Field before it resumes its world tour. Primacy is given to images from the original series, which are shown in slideshows across several large screens. Though disrupted by the grid pattern of the screens’ frames (presumably a technological necessity rather than aesthetic choice), the images are backlit and glorious, and large enough that one can sit in one of the crowd of chairs assembled and enjoy them comfortably. The “New Portraits,” on the other hand, are printed small and mounted unframed along a freestanding wall, and in such close proximity to each other that viewers (most of whom waited in long lines to get into the vast installation hall) are made to file past the small cluster of photographs, bending over or awkwardly standing on their toes to examine each one.

The older images in the current exhibition are nevertheless betrayed by time and evolving attitudes.

Though shown to greater aesthetic advantage, many of the older images in the current exhibition are nevertheless betrayed by time and evolving attitudes. I remember Leibovitz’s portrait of Heidi Fleiss, the notorious “Hollywood Madam” of the ’90s pre-Lewinsky sex scandals. Back then, her pose—sitting in her black convertible, bare legs splayed and drawing attention to the space between them—didn’t seem off. She was, after all, a sex worker. But now the portrait seems obnoxiously reductive and judgmental. Fleiss was the brains, not the body, of the operation. She was and is a businesswoman; to draw attention to her sexuality—not even her sexuality, but less, just her sex parts—is dismissive, as if any connection to sex work renders one’s own sexuality public game and the central feature of one’s character.1 Other shots invite similar critiques. A hotel maid poses with her hands clasped meekly in front of her, reinforcing the lazy presumption that domestic work is for the meek, or at least those willing to act meek while they’re on the clock.2 Also unfair is the portrait of the late movie star Elizabeth Taylor, whose wispy, white, fan-blown hair (in a shot clearly taken indoors) matches exactly the wispy, white, fan-blown hair of her dog. That wealthy older ladies come to resemble their canine companions is an unkind caricature created by a culture that despises age and resents the wealth of others, and to liken a woman of achievement, talent, and status to a dog is another reduction that is hard to imagine Leibovitz committing today.

Annie Leibovitz. Portrait of Misty Copeland, New York City, 2015; from WOMEN: New Portraits. Courtesy of UBS. 

To that end, the current photographs are careful, even timid. They don’t depict the outmoded prejudices of the earlier work, but neither do they indicate what those prejudices have been replaced with. All the women look dignified, even magisterial. They sit at their desks or at their pianos, or stand in their studios or ex situ, against a neutral background, elegantly gowned and coiffed and bearing expressions of quiet wisdom. Some are photographed in the physical contexts of their work, but those contexts don’t reveal anything beyond the basic information they convey, making the images less evocative than environmental portraiture. Gloria Steinem is a writer and so it makes sense that she is photographed at her cluttered desk. The singer Adele is pictured at her piano, unsurprisingly. Misty Copeland is en pointe, being a ballerina and all.

But what is it about these women that drove them to become such exceptional figures within their industries? What effects have their respective vocations had on their characters, and vice versa? What could an artist reveal that would surprise someone who knew only her subjects’ professional personae? Leibovitz doesn’t show any of this, and instead imparts the same generic elegance and Condé Nast brand of airbrushed gravitas to all of her sitters. Take Copeland: Any ballerina can be photographed en pointe, in a gauzy (of course it’s gauzy) ball gown that shows off her fearsome hyperextension and the supernatural arch of her feet. But Copeland isn’t only a ballerina, or only a black ballerina, of which there are proportionally few in the industry. What distinguishes her career is that she is the first black ballerina promoted to the rank of principal dancer in American Ballet Theatre—the country’s flagship “establishment” ballet company—and the first to dance the role of Odile/Odette in Swan Lake with the company, a benchmark in the career of the most acclaimed professional dancers. What is it about Copeland that drove her to achieve these victories in the particularly challenging contexts in which she’s plied her trade? What traits must she possess that a white dancer within the same company, or a black dancer in Dance Theatre of Harlem or Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet, does not have to possess? Leibovitz doesn’t show it, and it is unclear whether she perceives it to begin with. It’s almost as if now, in her age and legendary status, Leibovitz has bought into the notion that being photographed by Leibovitz at all is enough to declare the import of a subject’s place in history. And the resulting photographs suggest she doesn’t feel the need to elaborate on or justify such a notion.

They're only portraits in that they portray people.

This is a recurring problem with the “New Portraits.” They’re only portraits in that they portray people. The differences between those people? Indicated with props. Their unique personal qualities? Who knows. Humor? Even that is absent. The photographer who gave us both a wonderfully silly image and a powerful statement on race with her 1984 portrait of Whoopi Goldberg submerged in a bath of milk has, thirty years later, photographed current, popular, and also controversial comedian Amy Schumer clothed and, well, just sort of sitting there.4 The portraits and their subjects are beautiful: richly hued and at times softly lit, like Rembrandts. And the dignity that Leibovitz captures in her subjects is a welcome evolution from the missteps of some of her earlier work on the project, as described above. But what ultimately becomes evident is that at some point Leibovitz herself lost her sense of humor, her own playfulness, her willingness to depict something other than this generalized dignity in her subjects. Whether it’s a function of her own maturation, or a carefulness that takes over when a major corporate bank commissions a project, is anyone’s guess.5

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WOMEN: New Portraits is on view at Crissy Field, in San Francisco, through April 23, 2016.

Notes

  1. Indeed, the portrait would seem nearly as simplistic and heavy-handed even if Fleiss had been a prostitute, as if the tool of her trade were required to be displayed at all times like an ID badge or an exit sign.
  2. Malala Yousafzai, the teenage education activist and assassination attempt survivor, poses in the current series with her hands in the same position. So there’s that.
  3. Scroll through Copeland’s own Instagram feed and you’ll see something that Leibovitz’s photograph does not show. Copeland’s stare is direct and without guile; her upper body’s musculature bulkier than most ballerinas’, more like that of a javelin thrower or a boxer than a dancer. Even action shots from performances of classical pieces betray no vulnerability, none of the swan-necked, tragic-browed, maidenly delicacy that is exalted in the classical repertoire. Even in still shots, her every move seems a declaration of her will rather than the physical expression of some heightened emotion. One may misread these images, of course, but the images at least give one something to work with, and point to something that informs one’s understanding of the Copeland phenomenon. There is almost a hint of that something in her portrait in the WOMEN series—almost—in a defiant tilt of the chin, but even that’s more a cliché than a clue.
  4. Even her portrait of a nearly nude Schumer with a takeout cup of coffee for this year’s Pirelli calendar has more going on—sexuality, defiance of mainstream body ideals… Alas, that portrait is not part of WOMEN: New Portraits. www.cnn.com/2016/01/14/world/amanpour-leibovitz-schumer/.
  5. Swiss global financial services company UBS commissioned Leibovitz to create WOMEN: New Portraits, as well as a series of rather idolatrous portraits of its own affluent clients.

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