Fame frames Leibovitz’s ‘Women’
BEVERLY - Annie Leibovitz is the most famous photographer in the world. Much of her fame comes from the fact that many of her subjects are some of the most famous people in the world. Think of it as the sweet circularity of celebrity. So fame, both her own and that of her sitters, doubly informs Leibovitz’s work.
There are 29 portraits in “Annie Leibovitz: Women,’’ a compact, attractive, and somewhat empty show which runs at Endicott College’s Center for the Arts through March 26. They’re drawn from Leibovitz’s 1999 book, “Women.’’ Slightly more than half are of well-known people (Eudora Welty, Alice Waters, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Blythe Danner) or extremely well known (Susan Sarandon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Drew Barrymore). Inevitably, these are the pictures that a visitor notices first and is drawn to.
Recognizability is at once a blessing and a curse for a portrait photographer. It’s a blessing because face recognition (which is like name recognition, only with more oomph) immediately gets a viewer’s attention. Recognizability is a curse because it becomes that much harder for the photographer’s own contribution to get the viewer’s attention. Consider this a glossy version of the age-old form-vs.-content question in photography.
Being a celebrity photographer is a bit like being a celebrity. It’s easy enough to become a celebrity: Tell the world your son’s floated off in a balloon. Crash a state dinner. It’s a lot harder to stay a celebrity. By the same token, it’s not all that difficult to succeed as a celebrity photographer so long as you have celebrities to photograph.
But to endure as a celebrity photographer, access isn’t enough. You have to have talent, too. That’s why the most famous celebrity photographers - Edward Steichen, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, people like that - tend to be very great photographers, indeed. There are not a few people who were once quite famous and owe whatever fame they now have to having been photographed by Steichen or Avedon or Penn.
The photographing of iconic figures does not necessarily produce iconic images - that is, images whose power or distinctiveness is such that they have become how such figures are most clearly remembered in the mind’s eye. There are several striking portraits of the famous here: Oprah Winfrey sitting on the steps of a broken-down shack in her hometown; Elizabeth Taylor with her lapdog, the actress’s white hair comically chiming with the pooch’s white fur; Sigourney Weaver in a pose that suggests she’s auditioning for Helmut Newton. But none of them is the kind of camera-meets-persona collision that produces something more lasting than a standard recording of fame.
Sometimes we get something less. It was Leibovitz’s work for Rolling Stone that made her famous, and her work for Vanity Fair and Vogue that has made her bold-face famous. Yet Leibovitz does commercial work, too, and it’s a fair bet that more eyeballs have passed over the campaigns she’s done for
Except that they don’t look like portraits, they look like ads: not so much dressed for success as posed for success. In each case, the product being marketed is the sitter’s reputation - and the pitch is impressive (these women look decisive, confident, yet also feminine), only it’s legible as just that, a pitch. Good portraits are pitches, too. They’re selling the subjects’ persona. But what makes them good is that the pitching goes unnoticed.
If a subject’s fame can mask a portrait photographer’s artistry, anonymity puts it at a premium. Among the little-known or everyday people whom Leibovitz has shot here are two battered women, three members of a San Antonio youth gang, a Vegas showgirl (seen both in costume and civilian attire), the US women’s water polo team, a go-go dancer, and an elderly chiropractic massage therapist. (Not that there’s a competition or anything, but the smart money would be on her and Oprah to clean the clock of everyone else in the gallery.)
It’s refreshing to see such individuals presented at the same size as their better-known neighbors - and it’s a big size, roughly 4 feet by 3 feet, or 5 1/2 feet by 4 feet. It’s visual democracy in action. But they don’t hold the viewer as the famous do. Perhaps there is a lesser degree of engagement on Leibovitz’s part. Like repels like in physics. With celebrity, it might be otherwise.