June 6, 2013 through September 8, 2013
San Jose Museum of Art
Let’s get this out of the way: I do have respect for Annie Leibovitz and the contributions she has made to editorial and commercial photography over several decades. She is an everyman’s photographer in that her name is recognizable to almost anyone, especially those who can name no other photographers besides herself and Ansel Adams. (As an undergraduate at Arizona State I was welcomed into the fold by graduate students who proclaimed that any real artists in the program should hate Adams by Photo II and the same could be said about Leibovitz’s equally acclaimed status in popular culture.) While I would not consider myself a fan of Leibovitz, I have come to accept and even appreciate her work slowly over time. This has been a winding road to say the least beginning with a show entitled “Women” that I viewed at the Phoenix Art Museum back in the early 2000’s. The work was competent and well-framed, but other than that just kind of blasé. (It should be noted that at no point am I declaring that Annie does not have a good eye or isn’t a legitimate photographer, just that her status as an “artist” can be disputed.) The great majority of the individuals featured in the exhibition were famous. Celebrities, politicians and all of the standard personas that Leibovitz is renowned for photographing were on display and unless you had arrived at the show as a ready admirer of fame or were an established acolyte of the photographer, you left rather unimpressed. The question was really who would care about the work if it didn’t depict famous people? In a culture that has since even gone more absurdly over the edge with who it values purely for their cause célèbre, do these picture really merit being exhibited in an art museum? (If you are looking for high volumes of attendence, of course the answer is yes.)
Flash forward a decade and you will find my position softening after having seen “A Photorapher’s Life” and having read “At Work”, both of which document and memoir Leibovitz’s career as a celebrity portraitist. I would recommend viewing the film and reading the book as they did start to win me over to the photographer. I would never question her dedication or continuing evolution and I enjoy how she looks back at her oeuvre and seems to place greatest value on the relationships she has established with these iconic subjects over repeated experiences. Remember though, this is about “ART” and while it may sound and probably is snobbish (hell, its snobbish) to say that Leibovitz does not produce art photography, well that is the case. This is not the same condition of commissioned portraiture that existed throughout art history: the budgets, locations and access are all a matter of commercial art and do not ultimately carry the same significance as the images referenced in that previous category. Although I do sincerely believe however that many Leibovitz pictures will always stay with us, such as the John & Yoko “Rolling Stone” cover that was taken mere hours before the singer’s death, one must take into account however that the ambiguous categories and genres that photographs are by necessity allowed to float around in often creates the illusion that we can deem any image “high art”. A similar case would be the “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” portfolio that Steven Klein completed as an editorial for “W” magazaine which Larry Gagosion later shamelessly renamed and exhibited as a fine art body of work in New York that same year. Would anyone even care about these pictures if the depicted individuals weren’t two of the most famous people in the world? No, and while the photography is top notch as usual with Klein, the case remains that public fascination with the celebrity is enough to justify anything being thrown under the banner of fine art.
A look at the current Leibovitz exposition in San Jose is one and the same with all of her famous celebrity portraiture. It rallies under the guise that it is about her vision and the overall message, but if you look below the surface you will note that all of the locations photographed are the environs of yes, you guessed it, famous people!!! If these small point and shoot images blown up to large sizes were not photographed by perhaps the most famous image-maker in the world, again, who would pause to consider them for even 3 seconds? But of course, our love of the celebrity and of the celebrity artist (thank you Warhol, you were right) is truly the basis of any of this show’s appeal. Look deeper, expect more, desire for your art to be of value. We must transcend the cult of celebrity and learn that an image is the only viable means these people have of expressing themselves. Art is beyond the literal and superficial visage that you will encounter in the likes of celebrity photography!
The Garry Winogrand retrospective at SFMOMA is closing and I wanted to convey my appreciation for the exhibition and how pleasantly surprised I was to enjoy it. Not being a street photographer myself, and only half-heartedly accepting Winogrand’s status in photographic history previous to viewing the show, it was probably my profound lack of expectation that created the new enthusiasm I came away with for the work.
The photographer’s shoot from the hip, catch anything that moves approach resulted in perhaps 1 out of every 50-100 frames of 35mm film capturing something interesting, and with the constant barrage of mindless imagery produced by the masses today for countless purposes, it would seem that Winogrand was merely famous as an oracle of what would follow in his wake. While I was thoroughly familiar with the majority of his canonical images and had seen another grouping of his work previously about a decade ago at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona it was really the all-encompassing bombardment of visuals that allowed for the greater receptivity of the exhibit’s impact. When studying the hundreds of photographs in the exposition one gets a deeper sense that Winogrand was similar to Cartier-Bresson in his quest for decisive moments, but instead of resulting in the often design-based études of the great French photographer, Winogrand pictures display subtle and pensive narratives that provide us with clues, but rarely with answers. The decades worth of work on view reaches its pinnacle early on in the New York and cross-country photographs of the 1960’s but taken as a whole the effect is that of an operator who gave us glimpses of reality through the nuanced subjectivity of the camera and its wielder.
I have chosen to isolate the single photograph here because it was beforehand unknown to myself and was the picture that caught my eye from a distance and continued to intrigue me after my departure from the museum. In this 1969 image captured in New York we see the subject of the photo staring out towards the viewer (via Winogrand) and registering his anger and contempt for either the photographer or some other person not discernible from the framing. I love this picture because it sums up the nerve and bravado that accompanies street photography and the ability of the photographer to get the shot even at the expense of potentially having their arse kicked in. That kind of daring is half the reason that the show is so successful with the remainder lying in that this person did have a great eye for a picture (even if it first needed to edit down from thousands of them before refining it).