Annie Leibovitz, Wonderland @Hauser & Wirth Southampton

JTF (just the facts): A total of 40 color and 7 black-and-white photographs, taken between 1993 and 2018 and exhibited here in white mats and white wooden frames in three rooms (7 in East gallery, 29 in middle gallery, 11 in West gallery) against white walls (except for one red one.) All of the prints are archival pigment made in 2021 and most (24) are in editions of 8. Sizes vary from 20×24 to 43×63 inches. On the north wall of the middle gallery, 15 photographs are triple hung salon-style. On the east wall of the West gallery, only 10 of the 11 prints (each 13×18 inches) from the Alice in Wonderland portfolio are displayed and hung in two rows. (Installation shots below.)

The exhibition is in conjunction with publication of the book Wonderland, published in 2021 by Phaidon (here). (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: To survive in the fashion and celebrity jungle, photographers need a supportive and aggressive editor to advocate on their behalf. One cannot exist for long in this ecosystem without timely access to influential designers and publicists. The competition is too fierce, the pitfalls too numerous for those trying to reach and stay at the top of the profession. High-end magazines must placate advertisers, whose job it is to worry about the image of their clients; even momentary damage to a reputation can be fatal for a brand of clothing, a movie franchise, or an actor’s career. To reassure advertisers and gain entry to the gated communities of Paris couture and Hollywood studios, photographers depend on editors to spur their creativity and to prevent them from making career-ending mistakes.

Annie Leibovitz has worked with a series of strong, protective editors over the last 50 years: Jann Wenner at Rolling Stone, Tina Brown at Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, and Anna Wintour at Vogue. The longevity of her relationships with each is testimony to her imagination and reliability. In turn, she has rewarded their trust—and received glamorous assignments along with large fees—by delivering canonical images. A naked John Lennon curled up in bed with Yoko Ono on the day he was shot; a pregnant and naked Demi Moore; Whoopi Goldberg in a bathtub of milk; Meryl Streep in whiteface; Caitlyn Jenner in a full-length gold gown at her glass-walled L.A. home; the English Royal family—Leibovitz’s photographs have managed to crystalize eras while delighting advertisers and magazine subscribers.

Wonderland is a selection of her work since 1993, mainly portraiture done over the last 30 years for Wintour, who contributes a flattering introduction to the accompanying volume from Phaidon. There is a eclectic mix of movie and musical personalities (Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, Lena Dunham, Sarah Jessica Parker, Charlize Theron, Rihanna, Johnny Depp, Sean Combs),  athletes and former athletes (Carl Lewis, Allyse Ichino, Caitlyn Jenner), Las Vegas showgirls (Akke Alma, Susan McNamara, Linda Green), models (Karen Elson, Kate Moss, Natalia Vodianova), two artists (John Currin, Rachel Feinstein), one writer (Joan Didion), one fashion designer (John Galliano), one hair stylist and wig maker (Julian d’Ys) and one dancer (Pina Bausch).

Leibovitz doesn’t have a signature style, as did Avedon and Penn. She adapts nimbly to her subjects rather than imposing a “vision” on them. Currin is portrayed in his studio as a proletarian artist. Leaning back in his roller chair, paint smears on his jeans, white socks peeking out above his boots, he glares unsmiling at the camera. He and Leibovitz want us to believe that the painting on his easel is the most important thing in the picture. In an adjacent dual portrait his wife, the sculptor Feinstein and their daughter Flora, assume the reclining poses of figures in a 19th century French Empire painting. The long string of pearls around her neck, her bare breast, an enormous costume jewelry ring on her left hand, the other hand tenderly holding her cherubic little girl are clues that everyone involved is aware of participating in fake historical dress-up on a lavish Condé Nast budget.

There is no trace of amused melodrama in her subdued photograph of Joan Didion. Taken outdoors in Central Park in 2011, probably late in the day, when her play The Year of Magical Thinking, based on the 2005 book about surviving the death of her husband John Gregory Dunne in 2003, was playing around the world, it conveys Leibovitz’s admiration for a woman who has tried to look at things without illusions and to age without vanity.

A twilight English atmosphere pervades the middle room. Charleston Farmhouse in East Sussex, a meeting place for the Bloomsbury group when owned by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, is the setting for a 1997 portrait of Nicole Kidman seated on a bed. (She was then living not far away while shooting Eyes Wide Shut with her then-husband Tom Cruise.) Bell’s bedroom and a stone fireplace, both cast in a dusky blue-green-ochre light, are the exceptional photos here without people. Several of the photographs, including two dead animal specimens once studied by Charles Darwin, were published in Leibovitz’s book Portraits: 2005-2016. (The Didion portrait along with what is the only pure landscape here, a red hill near Georgia O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, are also repeats from that larger-format volume.)

Leibovitz sometimes absorbs the styles of other photographers, consciously or not. Her black-and-white portrait of d’Ys and the model Raquel Zimmerman, sporting a fantastically tall white headpiece, has the spare coldness of a Penn corner portrait from the 1940s. At the other end of the spectrum are the hot wet colors she chose for a 2015 Rihanna shoot (red dress, red shiny American ‘50s automobile, red bar décor) in Havana, for which Philip-Lorca diCorcia could rightfully claim copyright violation.

Leibovitz writes in her introduction that she has never thought of herself as a fashion photographer. Nonetheless, she admits that reviewing her work for this book, going back to her Rolling Stone days, “I see that fashion has always been there. It is the driving force in a portrait—whether it is Jerry Garcia in a black t-shirt or Patti Smith in the much-imitated style that has endured for decades, or the Rolling Stones.”

Assignments from editors have altered more than the direction of her career. A 1995 story on Las Vegas showgirls suggested to her by The New Yorker’s Tina Brown “changed my view of photography forever,” she writes. “I realized that one picture was never going to tell the story.” When the women arrived at her makeshift studio, she didn’t recognize them. “Then they changed into their costumes and became showgirls. We ran two photographs of each woman: a ‘real’ portrait and the costumed one.”

The gallery has adhered to this idea and hung six portraits, one in black-and-white of the women in street clothes; and one in color where they are in their glitzy, outlandishly scanty floorshow uniforms. They are among the best portraits Leibovitz has ever done in black-and-white.

She sometimes deconstructs her process for us, revealing the lighting rigs and makeshift studio walls, as in her portrait of Leigh Bowery, the Australian performance artist and Lucian Freud model. Staged in New York City a year before he died, it has him wearing a shiny black body-encasing S&M suit, padded and bewigged to transform him into a woman. In her Jenner portrait, her crew of young assistants, holding up reflective white cards, are prominent—perhaps too much so.

None of these efforts at dynamiting her essential Romantic nature are entirely convincing, nor is her Wonderland project. The sample of 10 photos here proves her to be too literal-minded a translator of fantasy: when Alice eats the cake and her head hits the ceiling, Leibovitz confines the model Nadia Vodianova, dressed like a child, in a too-small box. The failure to meet the challenge of interpreting Lewis Carroll is not a major setback. Many filmmakers and photographers have been tempted to illustrate him and none has so far discovered the precise balance of mathematic logic and lunatic whimsy found in the books.

More poignant, even if accidentally so, are the show’s celebrity portraits, especially ones of couples who are no longer together (Kim and Kanye, Johnny and Kate), their demise under-lining the transience of passion and fame. Leibovitz has herself experienced these downturns. Her turbulent private and financial life since 2000 has made her tabloid fodder in ways that can rival some of the stars she has lionized. Her love affair with Susan Sontag, described in a recent biography as abusive, and her dispute with Sontag’s son, David Rieff, who objected to the deathbed photographs of his mother and arranged a separate funeral memorial that kept out Leibovitz and her entourage, can’t be fun to read about. Her spendthrift ways left her teetering on bankruptcy in 2009, a disaster that was barely averted.

Leibovitz kept the rights to her photographs and her productivity at the age of 72 seems stable, as do her relationships with Hauser & Wirth and Condé Nast. She is the world’s most famous living photographer, the first woman to have earned that honor. If this show has any larger point to make, it’s to demonstrate that she evinces no sign of relinquishing her title.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $45000-60000 depending on size and place in the edition. The portfolio of 11 prints from the Alice in Wonderland series is $145000. Leibovitz’ work is consistently available in the secondary markets, with recent prices ranging from a few thousand dollars to roughly $95000.

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Read more about: Annie Leibovitz, Hauser & Wirth, Phaidon Press

One comment

  1. Pete McGovern /

    Interesting.

    I knew Liebovitz blew herself up financially paying for Sontag’s lifestyle and that Sontag was a full-on honest critic of the photographs, but not aware it had reached the level of ‘abuse’, but maybe the bar for what counts as that is set lower now. People are often mean to the ones they love.

    I’m disappointed to hear Sontag this way as in debates (such as with John Berger) she came across as civil with her ego in check despite antagonism.

    As for the Leibovitz photographs, when new to photography they made me swoon but a year or two down the line they left me feeling empty as if strangely hungry for comfort food. She’s an impressive worker and I wish her well while wondering at what could have been/could still be.

    Pete

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