Annie Leibovitz: Looking at the smaller picture


Special To The Japan Times

By way of introducing herself at the press preview of her new touring exhibition, “Women: New Portraits,” Annie Leibovitz says, “I love photography so much.”

It seems like an oddly disingenuous thing to say for someone who is perhaps the most well-known and accomplished portrait photographers working today.

The show itself looks fairly makeshift; it could have been much slicker. As it is, there are only dozens, rather than hundreds, of physical prints. These are modestly-sized and pinned to a board, rather than framed or mounted. There are also three large screens of slide shows that show off her more production-heavy work. This unbalanced and relatively simple setup is a little puzzling.

The subjects of the portraits on the board include Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham, Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg, Meryl Streep and Lupita Nyong’o, photographer Sally Mann and politicians Aung San Suu Kyi and Elizabeth Warren. The prints are intentionally small, and more or less the same size.

Speaking about the display, Leibovitz draws attention to three images in particular: the famous double portrait of John Lennon and Yoko Ono; Malala Yousafzai, the 19-year-old recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize; and a gentle image of the photographer’s own mother, which Leibovitz says is the standard by which she judges all her other portrait work.

At the press conference, she is targeted with fairly loaded questions and comments: What really happened with Queen Elizabeth? (The BBC misleadingly edited a trailer to the documentary “A Year with the Queen” to make it look like she huffily walked out of a photo-session.) Don’t you think your glamorous Vanity Fair cover of Caitlyn Jenner reinforces gender stereotypes? Have you censored the exhibition and excluded more disturbing images because of your sponsor? Why is your style so inconsistent?

Throughout this Q&A session Leibovitz is measured and generally unruffled in her responses, until the etiquette of the event is decisively broken by a journalist ignoring the beleaguered PR team’s repeated attempt to close the session. Rock ‘n’ Roll Annie comes out to play. “What is it that’s really worrying you?” she asks; not sarcastically, but taking the interrogator seriously and becoming fully engaged with her antagonist.

At this point I think I see why Leibovitz has chosen a few smallish photos on a board, rather than to go for a standard gallery show of really large, impeccably mounted images that show a stylistically consistent artistic vision; the standard option for someone who wants to impress upon us their auteurship. The smaller prints, all jumbled together, force a greater, not lesser, involvement from the viewer.

The presentation is also indicative of someone who really does loves photography, over and above any strategic desire to cement their reputation as an “artist.”

“Women: New Portraits” at Tolot/Heuristic Shinonome runs until March 13; daily 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Free entry.