Jim Sienkiewicz's Blog

Jim Sienkiewicz's thoughts on his own and others' photography

Annie Leibovitz-more pictures of famous people(‘s stuff)

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!

Annie Leibovitz-Elvis’s 1957 Harley-Davidson Hydra Glide motorcycle, Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee, 2011
Annie Leibovitz-Emily Dickinson's Only Surviving Dress-2010
Annie Leibovitz-Ansel Adams’s darkroom, Carmel, California2010

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