Walking through 4,000 photographs with Annie Leibovitz

annie-leibovitz-at-show-iris-schneider.jpgAnnie Leibovitz at the Hauser & Wirth gallery in DTLA. Photos by Iris Schneider.

The first thing Annie Leibovitz did before she went on a walk-through of her career-capping exhibition at Hauser & Wirth, Annie Leibovitz: The Early Years, 1970-1983 Archive Project No. 1, was issue a verbal apology and a warning about the enormity of what lay ahead. You're not meant to look at every one of the 4,000 images pinned unpretentiously but carefully to the walls, without frames and laid out over several rooms in sequence and stacks, she warned. Just go through and find the images that have meaning for you, she advised. That is how it's meant to be viewed.

Flowing down that river and finding meaningful images is a task much easier fulfilled than you might think. So many of the images themselves are memorable, and so many evoke a flood of feelings about the period in our history and the specific events they document.

Leibovitz-HipstamaticPhoto.jpgEven though she admits that in her younger days she wanted to be Henri Cartier-Bresson, "the decisive moment never came for me exactly." Looking back, Leibovitz says that instead, "It became a river of work." I admit when I first heard that the show consisted of 4000 images, I thought, she needs an editor. And of course, not every image sings. But so many stand alone. And seeing the breadth of her work, the visual timeline that represents not only her life, but ours, is actually quite stunning. It's a visual history of the 70's and of many of its seminal characters.

I disagree that the decisive moment never came but I think that Leibovitz found so many of the moments surrounding it just as compelling. I get it. I spent a career as a photojournalist being a fly on the wall, watching for the things that others might have missed, documenting the unfolding of major events and not just the pinnacle moment. I appreciate this river of images because it fleshes out those iconic moments and gives them context. And it does take some confidence to put your outtakes on the wall.

Hearing her talk about the early years was revealing of who she was at the time, a young art student with a camera, basically putting one step, photographically, in front of another, and following where her curiosity and her photographic idols led her. In her talk, she was honest and self-effacing. She admits that when she signed on to follow the Rolling Stones on their 1975 tour she would much rather have been traveling with Bob Dylan. But that was not her destiny and not her journey.

Instead, she hitched her wagon to the stars of pop culture, politics and rock 'n roll, chronicling it all for 13 years for Rolling Stone in its nascent days. And they are all here: Jagger and Richards, Stevie Nicks, Andy Warhol, Tom Wolfe, George Wallace, Dan Rather, Keith Haring, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt and Jerry Brown ("Why don't you photograph her reading a book?" he had asked her indignantly), George McGovern, Hunter Thompson, and Richard Nixon among so many others.

The groundbreaking photo spread on the day of Nixon's resignation that appeared in Rolling Stone, including the memorable image of the red carpet being rolled up as the helicopter bearing Nixon after his v-for-victory farewell was barely lifting off the ground, basically happened because Hunter Thompson who, Leibovitz recalled, had worked so hard and wished so fervently for this day to come, had writer's block and could not write about Nixon's final departure. The ten blank pages that were awaiting his prose instead were filled with the images that a young Leibovitz had taken that day, the first time the magazine let images tell the story.

The iconic portrait she made of a naked John Lennon curled around a clothed Yoko Ono, was shot on the day Lennon was murdered. It appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone because Leibovitz told Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone's editor, that Lennon wanted to be with Yoko. Wenner replaced the single portrait of Lennon they were going to run with the one we all remember. It became something so much more meaningful given the events of that day. Instead of reviewing the images with John and Yoko that evening, she had waited at Roosevelt Hospital that night to hear the final outcome. "I think I was in shock for months," she said. Yoko had encouraged her to sell the image so she could buy herself a loft but she said that she never did. "Maybe it would have been better if more people had seen that image," she reflected, "but I was idealistic at that time" and it never felt right to sell it.

Sprinkled throughout the rooms are photos that Leibovitz has taken over the years of her family: her parents, her partner Susan Sontag, her siblings, her children. She talked about photographing her mother, who was a dancer. As a budding photographer, Leibovitz had asked if she could photograph her mother dancing. The sequence of photos brings tears to her eyes because, she says, at that moment they were not mother and daughter but rather dancer and photographer. They had assumed the roles that would define who they were, or who they were becoming.

For Leibovitz, the process of mounting this show provided her an opportunity to look back and see the evolution of her work. Perhaps that is why she thanked the curators at Hauser & Wirth for putting up with her, and allowing her to include so many images -- seminal and ordinary -- that marked her journey. I'm not sure their decision came from respect or indulgence, but I took the advice she gave and searched for those images that resonated for me.

Those who might not connect so personally with her work might find this sea of images — and the dearth of captions and difficulty in identifying who we are looking at — kind of frustrating and bewildering. There is a written roadmap of the show, but not everyone who visits knows to ask for it. It should be more readily available as it definitely enhances the experience.

Leibovitz talked affectionately about the series she did for Rolling Stone in 1976 in which she documented the living photojournalists who inspired and informed her growth as a photographer in her own right: Cartier-Bresson, Jacques Lartigue, Ansel Adams, Richard Avedon, among others. The breadth of her interests and curiosity are the mark of every great photographer. And in this show there is value in even the imperfect moments captured, sprinkled in between those images that we will never forget. It's fascinating to see Ansel Adams standing on the stoop of his house, his station wagon in the driveway, a casual moment that humanizes the master.

When asked if she felt disadvantaged starting out as a rare female photographer in a mostly male world, she said that in a way being a woman made it easier. "No one paid any attention to you because they didn't think you could do anything important," she said. Looking at her river of images, I'd say she proved them wrong.

Her more recent work also makes an appearance on the walls, highly conceptual and well-lit portraits for Vanity Fair that, while clever, are not nearly as revealing or intimate as her early documentary work. No longer operating as an under-the-radar fly on the wall in her work, she still documents her family and her life, and can't really imagine ever putting down her camera and retiring, she says. "I'm going out with a camera in my hand."


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