There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
–-Lyrics: Stephen Sills/Buffalo Springfield
“For What It’s Worth”
Annie Leibovitz has combed through her enormous archive of negatives to personally curate and print these 4,000 (yes, that’s right) mostly black and white photographs for this poignant and profound exhibition at Hauser & Wirth. The exhibition chronicles the turbulent late sixties, the “me decade” of the seventies and the beginning of the prosperous early eighties. Printed in various sizes with some as small as 3”x5” straight from a contact sheet to later work that is printed much larger with an irregular black border (that echoed both Diane Arbus and Richard Avedon, two photographers that she admired), they are push pinned to a hemp wall in a precise grid in a sometimes curiously casual looking installation meant to evoke a kind of walk-in scrap book. These pictures are truly an amazing visual history of the way we were, while clearly indicating where we were headed.
In this labyrinthian installation, there is a tantalizing mix of rock, punk and country musicians, politicians, newscasters, scientists, writers — what we would now call “cultural producers.” Some are already famous, others are on the brink of stardom — such as a young Jack Nicholson around the time the movie Easy Rider catapulted him into iconic status — and are seen here in unscripted moments, up close and very personal. It’s a virtual who’s who of celebrities past and present. As John Lennon and Paul McCartney (who also appear in this chronicle of pictures) wrote in their song, “In My Life, “some have gone and some remain,” and that is true of many of the people captured here – some are still alive but not all. These nostalgic but unsentimental images practically demand a soundtrack to accompany the visuals.
To underscore the importance of Leibovitz’s pictures, there is a timeline, at the very beginning of the exhibition even before one sees images, of both important and seemingly unimportant events year by year from 1970-1983. This timeline culls and curates information, starting with the increase of troops to Vietnam, while in the next paragraph slyly references the very first issue of a new experimental magazine called Rolling Stone (November 9, 1967), the very same magazine that is going to catapult Leibovitz to fame and fortune.
In 1968, this fascinating and informative timeline notes that Leibovitz spends a summer in the Philipines with her family, where her father, who was an officer, was stationed. It is also this year when the then 18 year-old Leibovitz purchased her first camera — a Minolta SR-T 101. In 1969, Annie Leibovitz enrolled in a summer school photography class at San Francisco Art Institute. It was a tense and sometimes violent time. Leibovitz, a teen herself, captured the youthful passion at the People’s Park rally, which later turned deadly. On a personal note, as a graduate student at Berkeley, I was actually there at the corner of Dwight and Telegraph Avenues, when thousands of students clashed with the Alameda police (they were called “the Blue Meanies” from the Beatles animated movie Yellow Submarine). A brick was thrown, then tear gas and then came the rubber bullets. A young man named James Rector was killed while watching from a nearby rooftop.
Leibovitz was a witness to this history in the making and is there with her camera at the ready. She truly captures the chaos (sex, drugs and rock n roll), the exuberance, and the hubris of the burgeoning youth culture that also contains the foreshadowing of its own demise just a few short years later. This was the generation who said “we are the people are parents warned us about.”
The timeline inexorably marches on, detailing enormous cultural touchstones that continue to resonate even today such as The Stonewall uprising in Greenwich Village, which was the beginning of the LGBQT movement. The timeline cleverly intertwines Leibovitz’s own personal story with our country’s history, reminding us that this is her narrative as well (and she has a series of pictures of her own family as one might find in anyone’s photo album.) This coming of age tale highlights Leibovitz’s move from street photojournalist to becoming a renowned conceptual portrait photographer who is as famous as those celebrities that she photographed.
In the early seventies, Leibovitz had a productive stint at the fledgling magazine Rolling Stone. She had access to such notables as Linda and Paul McCartney seen in a car with their little children, to John and Oko just hanging out, to the photographer Imogene Cunningham, David Harris and Joan Baez snuggling after he was released from prison and Andy Warhol looking alone and lost by himself in the middle of The Factory, his studio space. These pictures serve to demystify people — artists, activists, news reporters, politicians who have achieved iconic status. Leibovitz ‘s back stage snapshots are unforced and natural, while at the same time pulling back the curtain, so we can see that the man (or woman) behind the curtain is just a person. There is an especially poignant image of Divine, half undressed, in make-up and bra, legs crossed in a somber mood of reflection, sitting alone in a littered cramped backstage dressing room. One can see the influence of Diane Arbus and her then provocative photographs of transvestites, midgets and the mentally ill.
Leibovitz’s political pictures are just as powerful. When Nixon resigned, Leibovitz was one of the few females covering the event. She stayed behind after Nixon and family had boarded the helicopter that was to take him away from the White House. Most of the other photographers had packed up and gone. But Leibovitz lingered and got a historic shot of the immediate aftermath, as three Marines holding onto their caps in the wind of the helicopter struggle to roll up the presumably red carpet. It would herald the end of an era. Along with the death of students at Kent State, the revolution went underground and the “me too” generation (so named by Tom Wolfe) danced the night away to Disco music.
By 1975, Leibovitz was asked to be the official photographer for the Rolling Stones. She agreed and ended up going on tour with them for the next eight years. At the press opening, Leibovitz indicated that she probably stayed too long. Her images capture the hedonism, the drug use, the endless rumpled hotel rooms, and the grind of the actual performances themselves. The creative powerhouse Mick Jagger is shown writing songs in bed, watching T.V., bored and bone-tired among the detritus of room service meals. Band members are portrayed either sleeping or passed out (hard to say), or drunkenly leaning up against a hotel door, half asleep, while still in the hallway. She is a fly on the wall — unobtrusively noting all events, mundane or otherwise.
There are a series of images of Leibovitz photographing Andy Warhol, photographing Mick Jagger (Andy was an unabashed fan of celebrities) with his ubiquitous Polaroid camera as source material for a painting. Another shot has Andy kneeling to shoot Jagger’s bare feet, right near his scuffed white loafers. There are some snaps of Andy in his workspace later and the now famous silkscreen painting that he made from that photo session. After the 1975 tour, in the timeline Liebowitz said Jagger “had gone to Ireland to recover.” “He was staying in the country,” she said, “building walls out of stones he picked up in a field.” Who can blame him?
Leibovitz, herself, then went on to South Africa to cover the Mr. Olympia contest and has some festive shots of the young and very buff Arnold Schwarzenegger (even a buck naked back view.) The election of 1976 was up next and there are great images of then Governor Jimmy Carter and his unorthodox campaign. One especially memorable image is taken in some rural county, in an African-American part of town. A tiny humble wooden building proudly wears a banner declaring “Jimmy Carter” in bold lettering and underneath it — “Presidential Campaign Headquarters.” The woman facing us in this photograph is simultaneously snapping a picture of Leibovitz just as this image of her is being recorded for posterity. This is like an infinity of mirrors – moving the viewer both backwards and forwards in space creating a visual echo.
In the summer of 1977, Rolling Stone magazine moved its headquarters to New York and “published a fifty-page portfolio of Annie Leibovitz’s work,” according to the handy timeline. It is here in the exhibition that Leibovitz introduces some of her fantastic conceptual portraits with a stunning one of Punk poet and musician Patti Smith. Photographed seemingly at night with flames behind her, this heralds the beginning of Punk and New Wave music as it gently but firmly elbows out Disco.
Leibovitz has referred to the exhibition as a “river of work.” And like a river it is possible to step into the flow at any point. While her photojournalistic images are noteworthy, it is with her strikingly original, and witty color portrait photography for the covers of Rolling Stone magazine (and she did 162 covers) that Leibovitz creates her most memorable images. Leibovitz stated, “I was trying to address the poetry in their portrait.” The most iconic cover has to be a naked (and vulnerable) John Lennon crawling all over a dressed Yoko Ono. Chillingly, it was actually photographed the same day that he was murdered.
Leibovitz’s creative collaboration with her subjects is especially evident with the color portrait of David Bryne, lead singer of the eccentric band The Talking Heads. He is shown clothed in a Surrealistic costume, most likely created by his soon-to-be wife, costume designer Adelle Lutz that is lifted straight out of a Rene Magritte painting. Bryne, the Scottish-American founding member of the band, lead singer, guitarist and songwriter, is garbed in a suit made of green leaves, his pants painted to look like the trunk of a tree, and the backdrop is a Magritte-like cloudy blue sky and heavy red drapes.
The wonderful actress Meryl Streep is shown with white greasepaint on her face, which highlights her expressive and intense eyes, while she pulls at her face as if to lift a mask. This is a refined and yet, thoroughly theatrical take on an acclaimed actress. The comedian Whoopi Goldberg is whimsically portrayed in a white tub, in a white bathroom, in a white opaque milk bath; her arms, legs and smiling face are in contrast to the whiteness around her. It is a gentle, good -natured but also quite pointed photograph, and quite unforgettable. An homage to the Naïve French painter Henri Rousseau and his famous 1910 painting entitled “The Dream,” shows the dancer Mark Morris stretched out, nude, on a velvet Victorian sofa placed incongruously (Freud would have a field day) in the midst of wild and untamed nature. It is in not in color, but the monochromatic black and white keeps the magic intact.
The street artist/graffiti painter Keith Haring was asked by Leibovitz to paint the set she had created (which looked like a living room with a sofa, side table, ottoman, and lamp) which he did in under an hour. The he painted his own naked body in five minutes, with his trademark black and white calligraphic strokes. In Leibovitz’s quirky portrait Haring is crouched on an ottoman as if about to pounce. There are some other striking images from that same night of Haring still naked on the cold streets of New York (west 46thstreet to be exact). Leibovitz said a policeman saw them but just passed them by and allowed them to continue to shoot even at Times Square.
Leibovitz was so generous to curate this exhibit and show us her journey from a young artist into the consummate professional she was to become and is today. There are moments, though, where one wonders at the cult of celebrity that bloomed in the seventies, and eighties and our very human but sometimes guilt inducing desire to peak into the closets and rooms (real or metaphoric) of these famous people. That voyeuristic impulse is on full view here. This dense, exhilarating and exhausting exhibit takes almost two hours to walk through, and is enlightening, and poignant as it vividly details the way we were.
Featured Image: Annie Leibovitz, “Dripping Springs Reunion,” Dripping Springs, Texas, 1972. Waylon Jennings
Nancy Kay Turner is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Turner is an artist, arts writer and educator who has written for ARTWEEK, ARTSCENE and Visions Magazine. She fled NewYork for the sun and fun of California and has never looked back.