Let’s start with the most fundamental question; the one we ask when we first set foot in a gallery, the one we ask as our eyes first pan across the works in an exhibition. Let’s start with the question that precedes all subsequent exposition, interpretation and explanation.
What are we looking at?
It’s a simple question really, one we usually manage to answer without even thinking about it.
It’s a question that stops us in our tracks though when confronted with the breadth of Annie Leibovitz oeuvre. Because, well, what are we looking at? Is this photo-journalism? Art photography? Commissioned portraiture? Commercial art? High culture? Low culture? Celebrity? An era? A mirror? All of the above?
The fact is Annie Leibovitz has made a career out of blurring boundaries and breaking down barriers. Her work bridges the divide between art and commerce, between documentation and interpretation. These are photographs that reach across nearly every cultural and sociological level. They cut across disciplines and ideologies. Leibovitz has photographed the established and the marginalized, the fit and the weak, the rich and the poor. Her work so permeates the cultural landscape that she now exists as one of those rare creatives that can simultaneously document our world and define it.
So, what are we looking at? All of the above apparently, for Leibovitz has done it all. While this is certainly an accurate answer, it leaves us in a bit of a bind from a critical perspective. Our taxonomic urge, the desire to give things names and organize them, comes from the belief that if we can classify something we can understand it. This idea of knowing where something belongs (its context) is a critical component of assigning meaning.
Blurring boundaries and breaking down barriers – doing what Leibovitz does – may expand our creative horizons, but it wreaks havoc on the traditional ways we talk about art. We don’t typically consider art photography the same way we consider commercial photography. They’re two different things with two different sets of intentions and expectations. In fact, we typically draw a pretty clear line between any commercial art and fine art. As it turns out that line might not be as firm as we believe.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Leibovitz’s portraits, the famous ones, the celebrities, the portraits commissioned for Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair. Specifically I was trying to figure out how works like these, created in the service of commerce, might fit into the fine arts tradition. As it turns out, they fit quite well. Historically portraiture demonstrates a positive correlation with money, celebrity and power. Oh sure, occasionally someone would paint peasant boy or a prostitute, but for the most part portraits were the domain of the wealthy and celebrated (see the Medicis of Florence, the Popes of Rome, various Dutch merchants, and the Royal Family). As such, yesterday’s commissions and commercial transactions have become today’s fine art. That being the case, it seems perfectly reasonable to ask, “If a painted portrait of a now-forgotten gilded age baroness can be considered fine art, why not a photograph of Brad Pitt or Scarlett Johansson?” Honestly, if we’re going to go down that path there’s no one I trust the job to more than Annie Leibovitz.
That’s because Leibovitz demonstrates a terrific sense of cultural awareness and historic context. It’s not so much that she captures the subjects of her photographs as much as she understands them. It’s that understanding that gives Leibovitz the ability to create the appropriate frame of reference for us, the viewer. In a sense she’s doing a kind of visual translation. She’s not just documenting her subject, she’s giving us clues and helping us see. That’s the role of any artist, regardless of medium, to help the viewer see what they see.
Annie Leibovitz at the Wexner Center is really three separate photographic exhibitions in one. The “Master Set” serves as the centerpiece, presenting a collection of 156 photographs selected by Leibovitz to represent the definitive edition of her work. This collection is being exhibited in its entirety for the first time. “Master Set”, while not a “greatest hits collection”, does contain some of the artists most famous works.
“Pilgrimage” is the second set of photographs. This grouping includes photographs taken as Leibovitz traveled across the United States and Great Britain, capturing the sites and artifacts of cultural significance. It’s an interesting set of photographs that manages to create an extraordinary sense of intimacy without depicting a single person.
The final set of photographs on view is the “Wexner Center Artists”. This grouping of snapshots and outtakes hangs in the lower lobby and represents artists and performers who have, over the years, been affiliated with the Wexner Center and photographed by Leibovitz. The informal display adds a sense of spontanaity to what’s an already fun collection of photographs.
Taken together these works display the breadth, vision and diversity of an exceptional artist. Annie Leibovitz is a fantastic exhibition, one that helps us see our world, understand our world, and perhaps most importantly, understand ourselves.
Annie Leibovitz is the recipent of the 14th Wexner Prize. More information about the exhibition can be found at www.wexarts.org.