The fabulous photos of Annie Leibovitz are on exhibit now in Arkansas’ exceptional art museum.

By MARY RICHE

BENTONVILLE, Arkansas, Dec. 2, 2023 — Annie Leibovitz’s photographs are memorable for being bold and sensitive at the same time.  She invites us to see intimate portraits without feeling like a voyeur.  Clearly, her subjects trust her because she literally exposes them (sorry for this bad pun).  She is both gifted and skilled, and I’m a huge fan.

Thanksgiving weekend, my husband Chuck Offenburger and I returned to Bentonville to see the special new exhibit “Annie Leibovitz at Work,” in the massive and impressive Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. 

It’s her first and only museum commission, at age 74, and an invitation that came from museum founder Alice Walton.  Leibovitz described it as the “opportunity to make new work without conditions or limitations.”    

Annie Leibovitz the photographer.jpg

The photographer Annie Leibovitz, as featured in the magazine of the Crystal Bridges art museum.

It features many new and rarely-seen recent photographs by Leibovitz, along with about 300 of her well-known photos from the past 50 years of artists, actors, musicians, politicians, athletes, architects, business leaders, and some of my favorites – her Polaroid “mug shots” of a dozen California Highway Patrol officers after they pulled her over for speeding over the years, and then ticketed her.    

Leibovitz explained in a story on the museum’s website promoting the exhibit that the “strength of my work in this exhibit is seeing the pictures together, like brothers and sisters.  That’s what makes it interesting.  It’s full of history.”

Because Chuck and I are close in age to Leibovitz, much of that history is our history. 

After her early years as chief photographer of Rolling Stone magazine, where she shot 142 covers, she was commissioned in 1975 by the Rolling Stones band to cover their concert tour.  From 1983, she began shooting for Vanity Fair magazine, followed by years as a contributor to Vogue magazine.  In 1991, her work was featured in a memorable exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

I have followed her career with curiosity and growing admiration. 

Leibovitz was born in Waterbury, Connecticut, in 1949.  Her mother was a modern dance instructor and her father was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force.  The family moved around frequently during her childhood. She received a bachelor degree at the San Francisco Art Institute, where she changed her major from painting to photography after attending her first photography workshop.  Her parents purchased her first camera for her in 1968, and in 1970, her first job assignment for Rolling Stone was to photograph rock star Grace Slick of “Jefferson Airplane” and later “Jefferson Starship.”   

For years, Leibovitz’s partner was Susan Sontag, the American writer and intellectual. They split when Leibovitz was 51 years old. 

At the age of 52 in 2001, she gave birth to her first of three daughters. 

Several of Leibovitz’s most famous original portraits are included in one large room of this exhibit. 

One of those is her iconic image for Rolling Stone magazine of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, taken in their New York City apartment on December 8, 1980, barely two hours before he was murdered on the sidewalk outside the building by a mentally unstable fan. 

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The Leibovitz portrait of Lennon & Ono, as published in the art museum’s magazine promoting the new exhibit.

I think the intimate image of a naked Lennon cuddling his fully clothed wife Ono is both tender and provocative, without being indecent. Critics of their marriage, specifically Yoko’s power in their relationship, have noted the positioning of them was a clear message about his vulnerability in the relationship, while making it clear that she wore the pants in their marriage. 

In 2005, the American Society of Magazine Editors voted that image the best magazine cover of the past 40 years. 

Another of my favorites is of Whoopi Goldberg, photographed in 2008 when she was a popular comedian and actress.  She is smiling and laughing as her face, arms and legs stick out from a bathtub filled to the brim with milk.  Her eyes are sparkling and she appears to be having a good laugh, even as she is immersed in a sea of whiteness.

Another striking image in the exhibit is of a nude, 7-month pregnant Demi Moore, taken for a 1991 cover of Vanity Fair magazine.  It created lots of publicity and more than a bit of controversy when it was published back then.  Moore is standing sideways as she looks into the camera, one leg bent with her hands strategically placed over her pubic area and breasts.  Together, Leibovitz and Moore tossed aside outdated standards as they proudly displayed her body as beautiful and sexy during this late stage of pregnancy.  Exactly 26 years later, Serena Williams posed similarly for a cover in August of 2017.  There was also a wave of publicity about that cover and less public controversy. 

The first Leibovitz photos you encounter in the exhibit here are in a series of 4-by-6-inch black and white prints from her beginning years.  Most are simple profile photos of people as are driving their cars with Leibovitz evidently a passenger.  What makes them especially interesting is that most of the drivers were young people who eventually became major stars in their fields.   In this photo, you see Chuck checking the program to determine names of those in the pictures.

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Checking the early Leibovitz photos of well-known young people driving their cars.

In another display, a portrait of sculptor Louise Bourgeois (American, born France, 1911-2010) is spread across 12 panels.  You can see the faint outlines of those panels if you look closely.  You can also see the “steel feet” holding up this large screen.  This image of an aging Bourgeois, focused on her lined face and arthritic fingers, suggested to me a level of personal self-confidence at this stage in her life.  It’s beautiful to me, and I enjoy wondering what these two successful artists discussed during their collaboration on this portrait.

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The Leibovitz portrait of sculptor Louise Bourgeois, a close-up blown-up, to about 9 feet-by-8 feet.

Bourgeois began sculpting spiders when she was in her late 70s, and her biggest spider, the famous “Maman” was created for the grand opening of the Tate Modern in London in 2000.  There are six bronze casts of the original steel work.  One of those is on the Art Trail in Bentonville, leading to the backside of the Crystal Bridges Museum.  You can get a sense of its size in the photo below, as Chuck and I stand “in” it.   In Des Moines, we’re also fortunate to have one of Bourgeois’ bronze spiders in the Pappajohn Sculpture Park.  It’s not as large as the one in Bentonville, though still impressive.

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Mary Riche and Chuck Offenburger under the huge Bourgeois sculpture “Maman” in Bentonville.

The final room in the exhibit presents Leibovitz’s newest work in a new format of “moving pictures” that use four separate giant screens mounted on equally giant steel structures, spaced in the four corners of the room.  Her portraits are on a continuous loop for a 15-minute show.

This new work was the main reason for our visit.   On opening night of the exhibit in September, I heard Leibovitz describing this new format for her photography during a special online telecast of the ceremonies by the Arkansas PBS network.

Last week, as we stood in the middle of that room, surrounded by the four giant screens, we watched the show unfold as we slowly twirled around to the catch the images as they floated across the screens.  The two of us played a personal game of “name that person,” and we both named many, if not all the politicians.  I named almost all the entertainers, pop stars, musicians and almost every one of the women regardless of profession.  It was lots of fun and the reason we watched the show more than once.

I really like this portrait of American artist James Turrell. 

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The Leibovitz portrait of James Turrell.

He’s perhaps best known for his “Roden Crater,” a natural cinder cone crater located outside Flagstaff, Arizona, where the “art” that is created is by the different angles sunlight comes through the opening above, as the sun rises, moves and sets.

Turrell has another installation, based on the same idea, here at Crystal Bridges – “Skyspace, the Way of Color.”

It’s a distinctive round building constructed along the Art Trail leading to the museum.  If you’ve read Chuck’s column about our Bentonville visit, you’ll know we heard a trio of high school vocalists rehearsing Christmas carols inside “Skyspace” because of the acoustics in the structure.  Their singing and the changing light and color from the sun rays bending into the building through a large opening in the roof, made for our perfect 20-minute stay inside there.

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Turrell’s “Skyspace” along the Art Trail in Bentonville. 

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Inside Turrell’s sculpture, the light and color were changing, while the Christmas carols were inspiring us.

Annie Leibovitz’s exhibition will run through January 29 here at Crystal Bridges, before it travels to other museums. 

You can comment on this column by using the handy form below here, or you can write directly to the columnist by email at maryriche@gmail.com.

2 thoughts on “The fabulous photos of Annie Leibovitz are on exhibit now in Arkansas’ exceptional art museum.

  1. Bravo, Mary! You made this exhibition come to life in my small cell phone screen. I learned a great deal about Leibovitz and her subjects as well as more about you! Thanks for taking us all on this mesmerizing journey!

    • City - Ankeny
    • State - IA
    • Wish we could see it together, with John and Chuck with us as well! Thanks for reading and your nice comments.

      • City - Des Moines
      • State - IA

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