Annie Leibovitz: Of Calendar Girls and Women
By SHANA NYS DAMBROT, FEB. 2016
“I’m not saying naked women are going out of style, but maybe clothed women can have a moment now.” --Fran Lebowitz
When it comes to appreciating the mature work of iconic photographer Annie Leibovitz, as her late partner Susan Sontag might say, context is everything. In fact, Sontag did say that, observing in On Photography that, “A photograph changes according to the context in which it is seen.” This she meant in terms of the literal setting in which a given image is encountered (book, gallery, news journal, singly, in a series), but also as a function of historical zeitgeist. In the case of Leibovitz’s current turn on the world stage, it is absolutely a question of both.
Her new touring exhibition “Women: New Portraits” and her curation of the 2016 Pirelli Calendar each signaled both a return and a fresh departure -- revisiting both her 1999 book “Women” as well as her nearly concurrent helming of the Pirelli Calendar in 2000. In fact it’s more than a simple set of sequels, it’s double rainbow of a narrative arc with both conceptual and creative symmetry that provides an exceptional opportunity to take stock of not only her work as an artist on its merits, but to use that work as she herself intended -- as a barometer of our cultural moment.
For those not familiar with “The Cal” is its friends call it, Taschen has helpfully released a big fat 50th Anniversary book with the tagline “undress for history, please.” As the book notes explain, “The notoriously exclusive Pirelli Calendar, featuring glamorous shots of beautiful women, was first published in 1964. Reserved for important clients and VIPs,” and famously unavailable to purchase. Photographers like Richard Avedon, Peter Beard, Patrick Demarchelier, Karl Lagerfeld, Sarah Moon, Terry Richardson, Herb Ritts, Bert Stern, Mario Testino, and Bruce Weber, have taken it on in past years. As mentioned, 2016 is Leibovitz’s second go. In 2000, she did the Mark Morris dancers -- both the first men to appear in the Cal and Leibovitz’s first nudes. In 2016, she gives us a very different kind of casting, choosing influential women of substance, diverse in age, race, and arenas of accomplishment -- and all with their clothes on. Except Amy Schumer. More on that later.
Back in 2000, she had just released what is still her most popular book -- Women -- a kind of response to the paradigmatic Garry Winogrand Women Are Beautiful mode, in which she deliberately sought to create what she called a collective portrait of American womanhood. She collaborated closely with Sontag on the 1999 book, and together they sought to expand on all the many things women are besides pretty, and they portrayed women from all walks of life from waitresses to movie stars and the Queen of England. For 2016’s “Women: New Portraits” UBS has commissioned a continuation of the project. The new portraits, also unveiled in London, do their part as a reflection of context too. Like the Cal, her choices “reflect changes in the roles of women today and feature women of outstanding achievement including artists, musicians, CEOs, politicians, writers and philanthropists.” Where in 1999 perhaps she looked at who real women were, in 2016, she looks at all the important things real women can do. For the Cal, in 2000 she introduced the male body into a conversation about beauty and desire. In 2016, she changed the idea of beauty into a fresh look at powerful realness, but remained animated by the message (and perhaps by the fact that this message still requires articulating) that women are about much more than their looks. All of these women use their celebrity and/or power for good, to effect change within their industry and in society generally, through their career path, philanthropy or activism, embracing role-model status and the responsibility that comes with that.
Leibovitz was adamant that she wanted these portrait to have “no pretense, to be exactly who they are. We needed more than 12 months, it was hard to stop! I just thought of women who inspired me. I knew I wanted a strong set of simple portraits. I felt a big responsibility, but it grew like throwing a party, one leading to the next. [Dreamworks execs] Kathleen [Kennedy] and Mellody [Hobson] were the first to agree, we built from there. Amy [Schumer] was last and I was lucky to get her.” The list also includes Tavi Gevinson -- a self-described pop culture nerd who felt empowered by being taken seriously at such a young age, prompting Leibovitz to recall how she “started at Rolling Stone when I was 19 and I felt the empowerment of being taken seriously when you’re young. I felt Tavi added that exact dimension to the list.” There is Serena Williams, Yoko Ono, Patti Smith, arts patron Agnes Gund and her granddaughter Sadie, comedian and author Fran Lebowitz, model and activist Natalia Vodianova, instagram phenom Yao Chen, filmmaker Ava duVernay, artist Shirin Neshat -- and force of nature Amy Schumer, who was very much in on Annie’s joke.
At the London release event for the Cal, Pirelli CEO Marco Tronchetti Provera was hard to pin down on the question of whether the 2016 iteration represented a new direction for the institution, preferring to remind everyone that each year the company chooses a photographer and gives them “total freedom.” So that while he admits “we asked her to do something different, the strength of the calendar is based on the freedom afforded to the photographers. Yes this is a departure, but as for a new direction, we will see what happens next year!” WM
Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Downtown LA. She is the Arts Editor for the LA Weekly, and a contributor to Whitehot Magazine, KCET’s Artbound, Flaunt, Fabrik, Art and Cake, Artillery, Palm Springs Life, Riot Material, West Hollywood Lifestyle, Jenkem, and Porter & Sail. She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes essays for books and exhibition catalogs, curates and juries a few exhibitions each year, is a dedicated Instagram photographer and author of experimental short fiction, and speaks at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. She sits on the Boards of Art Share-LA and the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art, the Advisory Council of Building Bridges Art Exchange, and the Brain Trust of Some Serious Business.
Photo of Shana Nys Dambrot by Osceola Refetoff
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