“Annie Leibovitz: Women”
At the Corcoran Gallery of Art to Feb. 28
Holidays got you frazzled? Feeling guilty about all the winter exhibitions that’ll close before you finish making the rounds? Here’s a time-saving tip: Kick the Corcoran to the bottom of your to-do list. I’ve got high hopes for Tara Donovan’s Hemicycle show, which had its press preview after my deadline, but as of last week, the Corcoran’s slate was the saddest of any D.C. museum in recent memory. For all I know, Curatorial Daring and Art, both peeved at being overshadowed by Institution Building, have run off to the Caribbean and plan on spending the season twirling their toes in the sand. What’s left behind right now is a lot of special pleading. On behalf of Tipper Gore and the domestically disenfranchised (“The Way Home: Ending Homelessness in America”). On behalf of the collecting efforts of African-American educational institutions (“To Conserve a Legacy: American Art From Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” made superfluous by a number of recent shows, at least two of them the Corcoran’s). On behalf of a late-career local nobody (“Samuel Bookatz”) and a mid-career regional nobody (“Evan Summer: Landscapes and Nocturnes”). And, most visibly, on behalf of women.
If you’re hellbent on sucking the pith from Annie Leibovitz’s workwomanlike delivery of the U.S. female, allot yourself at least 5 to 10 minutes. If you’re determined to have her American women sparkle someone else’s eyes come Christmastime but, wisely, not your own, get thee to the gift shop, where you’ll find most of the show’s shots and many more like them in softcover and hardback, slumbering alongside some soporific commentary by Susan Sontag. Worried that some holly-party chit-chat will require you to discourse knowledgeably on the pix? Ain’t gonna happen. Did your boss quiz you about Mark Seliger’s Wizard
of Oz-drag Seinfeld cast photos for Rolling Stone?
Still want to know what you’re missing? The size, for one. The images are blown up until they achieve a certain grainy, glossless realismo. In roughening up her generally lifeless shots, Leibovitz amplifies the presence of her objects while detracting from the presence of their subjects. This self-congratulatory gambit allows the show to feel bigger than the book without actually demanding anything extra of you. You flip through a Leibovitz book much as you do an issue of the exhibition-sponsoring Vogue—distractedly, desultorily—and you do the show the same way, bouncing from one wall to another, starting over, barely aware of having stood before the same pictures seconds earlier. After making several circuits of the galleries, I left and sat down outside, where I plowed through the book. It was almost impossible to recall which of the pictures were actually in the show.
With the size come the seams. The pictures are composed of as many as four Iris prints. The panel junctures remind some viewers of cross-hairs or the gutter in a magazine spread. When I see a slight pattern mismatch, as on Betty Ford’s green diamond-swathed chairs, I think of wallpaper. And when I see photos that look as if they could come unstuck and roll up into their corners, I think of railway posters—and I ask myself what I’m being sold.
That would be the nobility of the struggle and the grandeur of the achievement of the New American Woman in all—well, several—of her guises. If Leibovitz’s tapestry seems somewhat narrow and threadbare, that’s because she’s starting with a rather attenuated and out-of-date talent. She’s a history painter for an age in which photography has replaced painting, and celebrity has supplanted history in the public sphere. In other words, she’s a hippie society portraitist. As a relic of the early Rolling Stone, a publication that was defined by its earnest and, at the time, not-misplaced belief that celebrities could change the world, she is devout in her faith in fame. And she’s all but oblivious to the way celebrity has changed over the last 30 years. A new generation of magazine photographers, epitomized by David LaChapelle, has taken her trademark devices, the arty pose and the funky tableau (which she incidentally has soft-pedaled for the serious business at the Corcoran), and made them signify something more than a dour respect for the wonderful world of the fabulous folk. LaChapelle understands that today’s celebrities are made to be manipulated. Now more than ever before, a celeb’s career trajectory is a direct function of public demand. In Leibovitz’s hands, stars are the hoary gods of Olympus, forever ensured of mythic status. In LaChapelle’s, they are manifestations of shared fantasy, to be taken up, sculpted, and cast aside at will. His new book, Hotel LaChapelle, is a garish, sexy, enchanting trip. Hers is a heaping plate of ideological Brussels sprouts.
Leibovitz’s democratization of celebrity, unlike LaChapelle’s, doesn’t erupt from the public’s appetite. Rather, it panders to its duller, more dutiful instincts toward uplift and homage. She starts with the precious mannerism of the muse-besotted (Patti Smith, Toni Morrison, Louise Bourgeois), the stiff hilltopping of the governmental (Madeleine Albright, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Connor, several first ladies, past and present), and the taut flexing of the strong (sprinter Marion Jones, bodybuilder Lenda Murray, Martina Navratilova doing the Lewis W. Hine foxtrot with some heavy machinery). Then she adds the labors of the humble: farmers, soldiers, coal miners who brave black lung for their families, a teacher who braves white lung for inner-city kids. Shouldn’t they, too, be famous in our hearts?
A lot of the blame for all this nonsense accrues to onetime literary light Sontag, whose idea the book was. In her essay, she devotes a lot of large-print ink to female beauty, the unexamined male psyche (an unsustainable fiction given the ’90s outpouring of maleward microscopy and navel-gazing), and other thoughts unlikely to otherwise trouble Leibovitz’s viewers. But Sontag does aid her pal in setting the Wayback Machine for 1972, when Helen Reddy and other I-am women made feminism the butt of future jokes by failing to discern that while roaring might be a worthwhile pursuit, asking people to please direct their attention to the roaring amounts to little more than begging.
Whatever world Sontag inhabits, it certainly isn’t mine. I haven’t done my last-quarter taxes yet, but my wife—who refuses to call herself a feminist because, she says, it never occurred to her that women weren’t equal to men—probably outearns me 2-to-1. (My brother, an old-fashioned sort, asks if it bothers me that Rebecca makes more than I do. “No,” I reply. “You know why?” “No, why?” “Because that way we have more money.”) When I get a raise from a particular freelance client it will have the effect of bringing my pay in line with that of a woman who does the same thing—equal pay for equal work, and all that. The vast majority of the bosses I’ve had, good and bad, over the 10 years of my working life have been women. And, whether boss or employee, women are like men: Those with talent and self-possession, who don’t question their fitness to the task at hand, are good to work with. Incompetents in need of coddling and reassurance, who aspire to be deserving of respect but find it beyond themselves simply to command it through ability, aren’t.
And this latter group would seem to be Leibovitz’s target audience, those who require some flip-book chicken soup for their beleaguered souls, who thrill to the prospect of a snazzy portfolio of the alumnae of the College of Elevated American Womanhood, with a few cautionary digressions (battered women, recalcitrant Southerners, performance artists, showgirls, other carny types) thrown in. Women who know that it’s hard to keep your eyes on the prize when it’s snug in your back pocket will have little use for this bilge. Others could stand to be told that you’ve really come a long way, baby, when no one babies you anymore. CP