Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Annie Leibovitz at the Wexner Center: The Self-Portrait

Even on  a weekday afternoon, The Ohio State University's Wexner Center for the Arts bustles and buzzes with blue-haired ladies in Chanel and blue-haired students in charity shop. All move entranced among the two-hundred-plus photographs by the paragon of contemporary photojournalism, Annie Leibovitz. 

This outstanding show, Annie Leibovitz, is composed of two shows, really. First is the one-hundred and fifty-six photograph Master Set, the artist's limited edition, museum-quality, archival-pigment prints of selected works. The Wexner is justifiably proud to be the first institution to host the entire Master Set.

The other shows selections from Leibovitz's recent Pilgrimage series, organized by the Smithsonian's American Art Museum. Leibovitz traveled to photograph still lifes, landscapes, or close-up details of objects associated with great people she admires, like Georgia O'Keefe, Ansel Adams, Annie Oakley, Abraham Lincoln and John Muir. 

This is a massive, stimulating show that generates a superabundance of ideas. For instance: Concurrently in Columbus, the Schumacher Gallery at Capital University is showing photos of American presidents from Associated Press archives: I'd love to compare those with Leibovitz's portraits of presidents, first ladies, and presidential entourages.

In a fine catalogue (graciously distributed gratis thanks to a grant from the Express company), Wexner curator Bill Horrigan discusses Leibovitz as an artist. In a reprinted interview with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Leibovitz discusses her career largely in terms of seizing the opportunities of journalism. She was a renegade from the art school rejection of commercialism when she started at fledgling Rolling Stone; she speaks about learning to work with editors and how to win them to her point of view. I'd like to look at specific works through these two perspectives that are always available on her work. 

And then, of course, there's her relationship not to any single celebrity, but to the whole topic of celebrity. Through whose images better than hers to compare the presidents and the rock stars?

Since the entire Annie Leibovitz exhibition opened in late September (it runs through the end of the year), I've mentally noted, however, that the press coverage has been very light on substantial comment, beyond general adoration of her body of work. I haven't seen more than a couple representations of her photographs, though there have been plenty of pictures of Leibovitz herself—the sorts of pictures that social editors or Kremlinologists love.

But as it turns out, neither will I be writing about any issues, qualities, or details in Leibovitz's work. That's because she imposes strict conditions on press use of images from the show. From the over two hundred works, only eighteen are available for reproduction, including one self-portrait. The Conditions of Use page in the press packet tells me that, "Internet magazines and bloggers may use only one photograph plus portrait [of Annie]." I mustn't feel like my medium in particular is cut out: Print publications—which made her own career and continue to—get two (plus Annie, "if desired.") 

The pleasure of writing this blog is the pleasure of taking readers along, of being able to point to what I'm talking about. Readers can look at the art, and we can begin a conversation about it, "on the spot," as it were. They can evaluate my ideas immediately: Are they valid, or nonsense? In any event, we get the wheels in motion. The topics are art and ideas; excitement, engagement.

I can appreciate a photojournalist's dilemma: how to maintain her rights to well-known images that are much loved and easily reproduced? Every dorm room in the land might be papered with snuggling John and Yoko were the photographer not vigilant.

But is copyright protection really the issue in limiting reviewers' access to images? Does this perennial problem justify restrictions not only on the reproduction of her work for any purpose, but on its availability for critical discussion? 

One has to wonder if this is a show of art by Annie Leibovitz, or a show of her personal property? Do we understand her as an artist who has, like other artists, willingly released her work into the world (and who has been, unlike many, paid for it)? 

One reads that Leibovitz has faced financial difficulties. Most artists do. But this is not the business of the art-going public, nor is it the business of those of us who try to explore, discuss, and broaden the impact of art. To mount such a huge show and restrict the use of discussable images to one or two is a pinched act indeed in the very generous realm of art and ideas.

Yes, we all may go to an address on High Street in Columbus, Ohio to see the show—if we can.  But accessible discussion of art usually takes place remotely these days, in the press. And thinking people recognize that the best conversations deal in specifics, not in generalities. This would seem especially to pertain to work that is as based in particularity of place, moment, and focus as is Leibovitz's. 

Critical discussion is the artist's friend. It cultivates intelligent notice and interest. It asks viewers to slow down, linger, ask questions, to seek understanding and to incorporate the artist's work into their own experience. Good criticism isn't about the artist's finances or celebrity.
Annie Leibovitz, Plano, Illinois, 2011.
© Annie Leibovitz

But to the left, I reproduce the portrait of the artist. She knows, Wexner knows, we all know her to be quite as much of a celebrity as anyone else she's photographed. 

I forgo the privilege of that second image I'm allowed to choose. When it comes down to it, to select and reproduce one of the other seventeen would feel pretty arbitrary. For the purposes of a good discussion, though, no single image in this show provides as much material about the artist's  talent, vision, or methods as their withholding provides for this consideration of the importance of liberality in encouraging discussion of one's work.

The reproduced image, left, is the single subject that the artist permits to appear in any conversation, critical or otherwise, of this fine show. This may be what the subject is, but it's not what it should be.

No comments:

Post a Comment