Progression of Art
Untitled (Guards rolling up carpet after Nixon)
Working on assignment for Rolling Stone with the legendary journalist Hunter S. Thompson, Leibovitz captured the moment when, after resigning as president, Nixon left the White House for the last time. Three stooped guards in the foreground of the image roll up the carpet, fighting against the wind from the whirling blades as Nixon's helicopter hovers behind them. The magazine intended to publish the image alongside Thompson's piece but when he failed to submit, the editor published Leibovitz's images alone. The expressive photos captured an extraordinary, and highly-documented event in American history in a novel way. Here Leibovitz brilliantly highlights that the relevance of a work of art is not in what it reveals about the subject, but in what it shows about the cultural moment in which it was created.
Leibovitz had an uncanny ability to instill seemingly mundane moments with subtle meaning. She attributed this to her ability to capture moments either before or after "the moment." In this image, it was the moment after the helicopter carrying Nixon had taken off. The grounds are vacant, the Washington monument is visible at left, and the three men are packing up the last vestiges of ceremony, the carpet where Nixon would appear as president for the last time. It is both mundane and theatrical - the guards could be stagehands or porters, but the presence of the carpet and the White House setting evokes the pageantry of the State. Leibovitz remembers being "out there with the White House press squad, and after his helicopter took off, and the carpet rolled up, [everyone was done.] This wasn't a photograph that others were taking, but I continued to take pictures." This ability to convey a powerful moment that isn't immediately obvious to others sets Leibovitz's photographic style apart.
Bromide print - Rolling Stone Archive
Mick Jagger, Buffalo, NY
After having worked at Rolling Stone magazine for five years and building her reputation as a skillful rock and roll photographer, Leibovitz was asked by Mick Jagger to be the tour photographer for The Rolling Stones' 1975 tour. Determined to follow in the footsteps of her idol, Robert Frank, who travelled with and filmed the band on tour in 1972, Leibovitz eagerly spent the year traveling across the country capturing the band during very candid and typically unseen moments. Untitled (Mick Jagger, Buffalo, NY) captures one of these moments and has become an emblematic image from the historic tour. Taken immediately after one of the last performances, the black and white photo depicts Jagger standing in an elevator wearing a white robe and turbaned towel on his head. The rocker stares directly at the camera with a haggard expression, reflecting the exhaustion that comes with performing and partying every night. The neutral white robe and towel lend him the quality of a Bedouin nomad cast in the high contrast lighting of a renaissance portrait, thus separating Jagger from his familiar flamboyant stage persona and casting him in a new light.
This photograph along with others from the tour has come to represent how Leibovitz approached her subjects. Early in her career, she would spend days, weeks, or in this case, a year with her subject in order to get intimate and revealing shots. She once remarked that "in order to get the best possible image, one had to become part of what was going on." Leibovitz was so successful at ingratiating herself into new environments that subjects eventually became comfortable with her presence, even forgetting she was there. Unfortunately, the result of these immersive interactions led to drug abuse problems for her.
Bromide print - National Portrait Gallery, London and Rolling Stone Archive
Yoko Ono; John Lennon (Rolling Stone cover, 1981)
In the mid 1970s Rolling Stone started using color photography so Leibovitz did the same. She had photographed John Lennon several times for the magazine in both black and white and color, but her most well known image of the musician was taken with his wife, conceptual artist, Yoko Ono. Untitled (Yoko Ono; John Lennon) depicts the couple in an intimate embrace with a naked Lennon curled around a fully clothed Ono, lovingly kissing her cheek. Leibovitz had originally hoped to just photograph Lennon, but he insisted Ono be included. Hoping to reflect the sentiment of their Double Fantasy album cover, which showed the lovers kissing, Leibovitz requested they pose nude together. Ono refused to remove her clothes but Lennon disrobed. Leibovitz has always encouraged her subjects to have input, and in this instance the clash between clothed woman and naked man subverts the conventional art historical canon which so often fetishizes the nude female form. Ono's refusal to disrobe juxtaposes her husband's display of affection and vulnerability.
The image was taken only a few hours before Lennon was shot and killed outside his Upper West Side apartment by crazed fan, Mark David Chapman. It was first published on the cover of Rolling Stone and would quickly become iconic for its timing and the manner in which it immortalized the couple's devotion towards each other. Leibovitz understands that the photo's special status is a result of the musician's tragic death occurring immediately after the shoot. "It's actually an excellent example of how circumstances change a picture. Suddenly, that photograph has a story. You're looking at it and thinking it's their last kiss, or they're saying goodbye. You can make up all sorts of things about it. I think it's amazing when there's a lot of levels to a photograph." In 2005 the American Society of Magazine Editors voted the image the best magazine cover of the last 40 years.
C-type color print - National Portrait Gallery, London
By the 1980s Leibovitz's reputation was firmly established, and celebrities and fellow artists alike jumped at the chance to be photographed by her. In Keith Haring, she captured the graffiti and Pop artist naked and squatting on top of a coffee table with a surprised expression on his face. Literally becoming one with his work, his entire body is painted; camouflaging him against the mural he painted on the Salvation Army furniture and walls of the room. The image shows Leibovitz's ability to playfully convey the identities of her subjects. Haring's boldness and oneness with his work are made literal. Andy Grundberg, Photography historian and critic, explains how Leibovitz "exaggerates the distinctive characteristic of [the celebrities'] public image in a way that is funny and deflating."
Keith Haring also marks the beginning of Leibovitz's transition to the more concept-driven and staged photography that would come to define her style. "It was the beginning of understanding the potential of conceptual photography. I was trying to address their poetry in their portrait, and suddenly, it just clicked. That the set-up portrait could have a story to it," Leibovitz explained. As photographer and author Sam Jones explains, during the 1980s "photography turned from being an exchange between two people into an event. Leibovitz was partly responsible for creating a style in which photography became a chance to make everything larger than life." Indeed she indulged her own creativity and that of her subjects in these theatrical images.
Platinum print - Collection of the Artist
Leibovitz's staged portraiture earned a reputation as being intentionally provocative when actress Demi Moore was featured on the cover of Vanity Fair. Wearing only a 33-carat diamond ring and earrings, the seven months pregnant star stands in profile against a gray backdrop. One hand covers her breasts while the other tenderly cups her pregnant belly; framing the obvious focal point of the portrait. Looking over her shoulder and away from the camera, the star proudly displays her naked body.
In the 1990s when the Culture Wars were at their peak, the cover image was seen as an unprecedented provocation from a mainstream publication. When the issue was released, the controversy and backlash was immediate. A celebrity on a cover of a magazine, completely naked and visibly pregnant was considered grotesque and obscene. Many retailers refused to sell it or displayed it covered like a pornographic magazine. The photograph started a nation-wide discussion on femininity, propriety, and what it meant to be a good mother. Critics deeming Moore unfit for motherhood for posing nude, while advocates celebrated her bold celebration of the natural state of pregnancy. George Lois, the long time art director of Esquire magazine contests, wrote that the image was a "dramatic symbol of female empowerment...that conveyed a potent message that challenged a repressed society." As a result of its controversy, the portrait has become one of the most iconic images of the past two decades and was named by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential images of all time. In context, it stands as an example of Leibovitz's skill using popular celebrities to engage with larger sociocultural debates.
Platinum print - Vanity Fair Archive
Fallen bicycle of teenage boy just killed by a sniper
In the 1990s Leibovitz traveled with Sontag to Sarajevo to document Bosnia's bloody struggle to become independent. Fallen bicycle of teenage boy just killed by a sniper depicts the aftermath of the death of an innocent boy trapped in the midst of the conflict. As Leibovitz recalls, "the picture of the bicycle and the smeared blood was taken just after the boy on the bike had been hit by mortar that came down in front of our car...We put him in the car and sent him to the hospital, but he died on the way." The photograph documents the boy's traumatic final moments; his absence is an unsettling reminder of the fragility of life.
The image was a departure from Leibovitz's portraiture, reflecting instead her earlier active engagement in the environment of her subjects combined with Sontag's influence on Leibovitz's efforts to create more serious and impactful work. Shot in black and white, it follows the tradition of documentary photojournalism, and further distances it from her commercial celebrity portraits. In discussing the difference between these genres, Leibovitz explains, "I was developing my own style of setting up formal portraits and theatrical scenes at the time, but I didn't consider those conceptual portraits to be journalism. Portrait photography was liberating. I felt free to play with the genre. Photojournalism - reportage - was about being an observer. About seeing what was happening in front of you and photographing it." Although commercial work allowed her to expand imaginatively, Leibovitz maintained a connection to the documentary photographers that inspired her, and a drive to engage with current events.
Bromide print - Collection of the Artist
Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace
Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace is one in a series of official portraits Leibovitz took of the Queen, and the first time an American was selected for the task. A controversy occurred when the BBC reported that the Queen stormed out of the shoot when Leibovitz asked her to remove her crown to make the image "less dressy." The source of this story was confirmed to be erroneous and the incident, later referred to as 'Queengate,' was criticized for depicting the royal in a negative light. As the photograph makes plain, the Queen did consent to appear without crown or tiara. The ornate, historic White Room of Buckingham Palace provided a dramatic setting without any additional art direction or staging, and the Queen is dressed extravagantly to compliment the room. Light filters in from a large window highlighting the Queen while casting the rest of the space in shadow. This image blends Leibovitz's love of theatricality and documentary portraiture, and is unique because in this particular instance the subject's 'natural' setting is highly styled.
Her friend and mentor Richard Avedon believed "the way someone who's being photographed presents himself to the camera, and the effect of the photographer's response on that presence, is what the making of a portrait is all about." He would shoot his subjects in front of simple backgrounds and attempt to capture an instantaneous emotional response. Leibovitz, on the other hand, rejects the belief that a photograph can depict the essence of a person, believing that people are too complex. Rather than capture an unguarded moment, Leibovitz embraces artifice and creates an idealized (staged) scene. As in the portrait of the Queen, Leibovitz turns her celebrity subjects into characters in a narrative, they play a part in a concept created by the photographer. In the process, rather than diminish the glamour and mythology of celebrity, Leibovitz's photos aggrandize it.
Chromogenic print - National Portrait Gallery, London
Untitled (2017 Vanity Fair Hollywood Issue cover)
In 1995 Vanity Fair began the tradition of devoting its March issue entirely to celebrating the stars deemed to have made an impact in film the previous year; and Leibovitz has photographed each issue. Untitled, was the magazine's 2017 Hollywood Issue cover, and features 11 stars posed in expensive, color coordinated designer gowns against the backdrop of a movie studio lot. Some stand, while others sit or recline, creating a multi-level composition full of dynamic symmetry with no single focal point. The overall languidness of the group juxtaposed with the lavishly stylized fashions reinforces the notion of actresses as effortless beauties. Each woman gazes into the camera with a dispassionate expression, not interacting with one another. The Hollywood covers serve as a time-capsule record of a given year's academy award winners, emerging celebrities, and the fashions of the season. The grouping changes annually but Leibovitz's compositions are strikingly similar. As a comment on celebrity the cover images speak to glamour and elegance, but also the interchangeability and ephemerality of the industry and the careers of the subjects.
Leibovitz's celebrity group portraits have helped make her as famous as her subject matter, and her distinctive staged groupings immediately recognizable. Her success lies in her ability to create visual interest in her placement of people, lighting, and props, which is made to seem effortless, but in practice requires much thought and planning. Leibovitz embraces this superficiality of celebrity culture stating that, "some times I enjoy just photographing the surface because I think it can be as revealing as going to the heart of the matter." The relevance of the work of art often is not about what is reveals or exposes about the subject, but what it reaveals about the cultural moment in which it was created. Taken together Leibovitz's celebrity covers sketch a trajectory of contemporary popular culture.
Chromogenic print - Vanity Fair Archive