Annie Leibovitz. Portrait of Misty Copeland, New York City, 2015; from WOMEN: New Portraits. Courtesy of UBS.
It’s hard to guess the reasoning behind the exhibition layout of WOMEN: New Portraits, photographer Annie Leibovitz’s continuation of her 1999–2000 collaboration with critic and partner Susan Sontag, which is currently on display at the Presidio’s Crissy Field before it resumes its world tour. Primacy is given to images from the original series, which are shown in slideshows across several large screens. Though disrupted by the grid pattern of the screens’ frames (presumably a technological necessity rather than aesthetic choice), the images are backlit and glorious, and large enough that one can sit in one of the crowd of chairs assembled and enjoy them comfortably. The “New Portraits,” on the other hand, are printed small and mounted unframed along a freestanding wall, and in such close proximity to each other that viewers (most of whom waited in long lines to get into the vast installation hall) are made to file past the small cluster of photographs, bending over or awkwardly standing on their toes to examine each one.
Though shown to greater aesthetic advantage, many of the older images in the current exhibition are nevertheless betrayed by time and evolving attitudes. I remember Leibovitz’s portrait of Heidi Fleiss, the notorious “Hollywood Madam” of the ’90s pre-Lewinsky sex scandals. Back then, her pose—sitting in her black convertible, bare legs splayed and drawing attention to the space between them—didn’t seem off. She was, after all, a sex worker. But now the portrait seems obnoxiously reductive and judgmental. Fleiss was the brains, not the body, of the operation. She was and is a businesswoman; to draw attention to her sexuality—not even her sexuality, but less, just her sex parts—is dismissive, as if any connection to sex work renders one’s own sexuality public game and the central feature of one’s character.1 Other shots invite similar critiques. A hotel maid poses with her hands clasped meekly in front of her, reinforcing the lazy presumption that domestic work is for the meek, or at least those willing to act meek while they’re on the clock.2 Also unfair is the portrait of the late movie star Elizabeth Taylor, whose wispy, white, fan-blown hair (in a shot clearly taken indoors) matches exactly the wispy, white, fan-blown hair of her dog. That wealthy older ladies come to resemble their canine companions is an unkind caricature created by a culture that despises age and resents the wealth of others, and to liken a woman of achievement, talent, and status to a dog is another reduction that is hard to imagine Leibovitz committing today.
To that end, the current photographs are careful, even timid. They don’t depict the outmoded prejudices of the earlier work, but neither do they indicate what those prejudices have been replaced with. All the women look dignified, even magisterial. They sit at their desks or at their pianos, or stand in their studios or ex situ, against a neutral background, elegantly gowned and coiffed and bearing expressions of quiet wisdom. Some are photographed in the physical contexts of their work, but those contexts don’t reveal anything beyond the basic information they convey, making the images less evocative than environmental portraiture. Gloria Steinem is a writer and so it makes sense that she is photographed at her cluttered desk. The singer Adele is pictured at her piano, unsurprisingly. Misty Copeland is en pointe, being a ballerina and all. (continue reading)
- Indeed, the portrait would seem nearly as simplistic and heavy-handed even if Fleiss had been a prostitute, as if the tool of her trade were required to be displayed at all times like an ID badge or an exit sign.
- Malala Yousafzai, the teenage education activist and assassination attempt survivor, poses in the current series with her hands in the same position. So there’s that.