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Surface Projections

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ANNIE LEIBOVITZ: PHOTOGRAPHS 1970-1990

at the Chicago Cultural Center, through October 2

PEOPLE OF DEHON

at the Greenview Art Center, through August 14

Of the 119 photographs by Annie Leibovitz now on view at the Chicago Cultural Center, almost all are portraits, and most are portraits of celebrities--Mick Jagger, Whoopi Goldberg, Bette Midler, John Lennon. Leibovitz began photographing for Rolling Stone in 1970 while a student at the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 1983 she switched to Vanity Fair, where she still works. Most of her images are visually striking, sometimes a bit shocking, sometimes humorous. She says she tries to compress a lot into a single picture, to use the pictures "to tell little stories." Leibovitz researches her subjects by reading their books, listening to their music, viewing their dances. And often she incorporates visual jokes based on their work: Bette Midler is asleep in a "field" of roses, Patti Smith stands before flames.

The central conceit of her photographs is that life is theater and her subjects actors whose destiny is to display themselves for her camera and for us. We see Whoopi Goldberg in a bathtub full of milk, brown legs jutting up to the camera above her.

While Leibovitz's great success--it has become a cliche that she is now as famous as her subjects--is due in part to her inventiveness and skill, it is also likely due to the way in which she has captured the essence of modern celebrity. In what writer Christopher Lasch calls our "culture of narcissism," our stars expect to be looked at: out of the corner of their eye they watch us watching them.

Few would argue that Leibovitz did not capture the true Liberace: bedecked in furs and jewels, accompanied by his younger look-alike companion Scott Thorson, who's dressed in a fantasy uniform that would embarrass almost anyone. One of a number of photos of the Rolling Stones shows Ron Wood and Keith Richards apparently rehearsing in a hotel room. Behind each of them is a mirror in which each is reflected; an impromptu performance becomes an image-producing event. And there's the shot of Leibovitz's Rolling Stone editor, Jann Wenner, who knows a thing or two about celebrity himself, clad only in briefs and lying on a couch, his furniture a means of displaying his body for a photograph. And there's Willem Dafoe, set against a black background, his black jacket unzipped and pulled back just beyond his nipples, his head in profile. The viewer is invited to look without being confronted.

While such treatment may be appropriate for performers, other pictures are more troubling. In Christmas Soledad Prison, couples greeting each other embrace in a prison yard that's framed to look curiously like a set. One doesn't doubt the intense human emotions one sees, but the scene as a whole is rendered with a curiously pictorial, posterlike distancing.

"I'm very happy with what's on the surface a lot of times," Leibovitz told the New York Times. "The projection is as interesting as the inside self." And when she photographs people who do "project," the result can be striking. We see Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold wrestling in the mud, Roseanne on top; Pele depicted in a shot of his blistered feet; Greg Louganis's body underwater in a graceful arch. A bare-chested Arnold Schwarzenegger sits bareback atop a white horse; the cigar in Schwarzenegger's mouth, seeming a mite redundant, points horizontally to the left, following the line of the horse, Schwarzenegger's belt, his gaze. Jodie Foster poses on Malibu beach in a bright red dress at sunset; she leans forward seductively, and the pink-and-yellow sky behind her seems to meld with her dress and skin and become a fashion accessory.

While most of these portraits work by taking the popular image of a star and making it more extreme, Leibovitz sometimes seems to play against type. Almost nude, fashion model Lauren Hutton is seen covered with mud except for her face. Leibovitz was thinking, she told interviewer David Felton, of how Hutton was "used as a clothes rack." But in this image the mud becomes just another fashion statement, its texture as lush as fabric but revealing more of her body than any dress. She's just another woman on display.

Leibovitz has a good eye for the possessiveness people show toward their belongings and toward each other. She cites the family snapshot as a primary influence, and the show includes a number of 1970s portraits of her mother, father, and grandmother--hanging their laundry, standing by the stove, standing in front of a house. A bit higher up on the food chain is record mogul Ahmet Ertegun, seen seated alone in the backseat of a limo, his face and body position commanding the whole space of the car. Similarly, Tammy Wynette poses on the steps of her home, baby in her arms and a little white dog at her feet; she's framed by two columns of her mansion. Behind her is her car, beyond that the grounds. The trees drip Spanish moss. She stands as if at the front of a stage, a solo star.

Surely the most famous of Leibovitz's "possessive" images is the one of a nude John Lennon wrapping himself around a black-clad Yoko Ono. Taken only two hours before Lennon's murder, it has become a pop-culture icon. It appears sans color on the cover of the beautifully designed book that accompanies this traveling show, as well as in color inside. Lennon, according to Leibovitz, saw a Polaroid of the pose and loved it--"This is my relationship with her."

What the photo depicts is a kind of mutual possessiveness--John wishing to attach himself to Yoko almost as an appendage; a somewhat indifferent Yoko accepting his worshipful embrace. But there seems to me to be something almost craven about this shot, and about many other images in the show. Just as John is willing to do almost anything to get Yoko's attention, so Leibovitz will do almost anything to get ours. Here, as with so many other photos, there is no sense of form or composition other than the blatant, attention-getting pose. There are no real ideas here, almost no intelligence, only surfaces. I recall a story of a nearly nude boy who is said to have run about a New York dance club in the late 80s yelling, "Look at me!"

It is certainly true that Leibovitz's images provide us with an accurate, and thus valuable, reading of the dominant ideas of current mass culture: that one's appearance is everything; that one's identity can be defined by appearances; that any rule can be broken to get attention; that you are what--and who--you own. The apparent formlessness of many of her images is perhaps appropriate to a mind-set that sees little distinction between people and things.

Thus when Steve Martin bought a huge and expensive painting by Franz Kline--"the kind of thing only museums can afford," says Leibovitz--he wanted to be photographed "in" it. So Leibovitz stood him before the picture in a white tux covered with the same thick black brush strokes as the Kline.

The problem is that Kline, a New York school abstractionist of the 1950s, was a painter who along with most of his colleagues held to the now increasingly archaic belief that a work of art is autonomous. Martin--and Leibovitz--treat Kline as a manufacturer of fashion ideas or decorating motifs: they present his brush strokes as mannerisms and ignore the composition.

When one's eye sees only appearances, the idea that the visible can lead to the invisible is lost. This is why some of Leibovitz's more introspective portraits seem so odd. Compare the head shot of John Lennon that served as her first Rolling Stone cover and the photo of a pensive Susan Sontag. They are both thinking, but about what? There seems to be little difference between the two. What we see is the external depiction of thought; there is no sense of moving inward, to the realm behind the eyes.

Leibovitz's portrayals of artists of her generation are often more effective; at least they seem true to the artists' ethos. She carries the idea in the Steve Martin portrait to an extreme with Keith Haring, who stands nude on a table in an all-white room that he has decorated with black lines in his graffitilike style. His body, penis included, has been painted white and covered with similar lines. Since Haring's repetitive, almost decorative patterns are often about the violation of all limits, the image seems clever and appropriate.

Similarly, Cindy Sherman, a photographer who makes images of herself costumed as a wide variety of men and women, is seen in a plain black-and-white outfit standing in a line with nine look-alikes. (Sherman is fourth from the left.) Here Leibovitz plays against type wittily: if Sherman wants to play so many different people, Leibovitz will give us a little world of all Cindy Shermans. But as with Lauren Hutton, she is not really arguing with the appearance-is-everything role that model and artist have assumed for themselves; rather Leibovitz is toying with it, punning on it, finally agreeing with it.

While photography is surely limited in what it can do--I have yet to see the photographic equivalent of the literary interior monologue--the flat, almost artificial airlessness of Leibovitz's work is not the only possibility. In a wonderful book of candid Albert Wertheimer photographs called Elvis '56: In the Beginning, the light is real daylight, and when Elvis is seen shirtless it seems to be because he wanted to take his shirt off, not because some photographer coaxed him out of it. And there have been many portrait photographers, from Mathew Brady on down, who have given the viewer the sense of journeying inward. Leibovitz's work left me feeling choked with a surfeit of objects, unable to breathe amid the roses that swathe Bette Midler, the milk that bathes Whoopi Goldberg. She may have captured celebrity, but the work of many other artists tells us that this is not the only ethos of our age. Her refusal to go beyond surfaces recalled for me William Butler Yeats's criticism of his own earlier poetry in "The Circus Animals' Desertion," written at the very end of his life: "Character isolated by a deed / To engross the present and dominate memory. / Players and painted stage took all my love, / And not those things that they were emblems of."

One photographer who sees the world very differently from Leibovitz is Jody O'Connor. Born in Wilmette, where she now lives, she is largely self-taught. One of her inspirations was the work of Minor White, whose theory, in her words, was that "the camera when used faithfully can enable one to connect with the higher spiritual world." A few years ago she got involved in Chicago's Dehon House, a Catholic-supported residence for families who are temporarily homeless. Asked to take a Christmas portrait of the residents, she was soon photographing them at other times; when some of them, especially the children, became curious about the camera, she let them take their own pictures.

The resulting exhibition, "People of Dehon," includes 42 of O'Connor's images and 20 photos by residents, all but one of them children of 13 or younger. It provides a welcome and moving contrast to Leibovitz's high-octane, celebrity-filled presentation. In the Leibovitz show, the few "ordinary" images are actually of extraordinary things. Her only nonhuman picture is of a Stealth bomber; by Christmas 1971, when her picture was made, Soledad was celebrated among radicals as the site of a bloody shootout. In "People of Dehon," we see the genuine faces of unknown people, people who for the most part seem unconcerned with the images they present for the camera. We also see brick walls, trees, doors, manhole covers.

O'Connor's own photos are mostly portraits, head or head-and-torso shots of residents seen singly or in groups of two or three. While her work has perhaps a touch of naive optimism--not all the facial expressions are happy but none seem genuinely mean--there is something wonderfully liberating about these images. Her subjects, observed mostly at middle distance from her lens and without any tricks, are given a kind of freedom; one feels, as one views them, that each is surrounded by real air and by room to breathe.

Kenya, Meeka and Nianda shows three women standing together. Each looks into the camera with a different degree of friendliness; these three (presumably) friends are allowed, in the photo, to maintain separate identities. Nianda, whose expression seems the most formal and removed, is also seen alone in Nianda, and here her face seems open and vulnerable. I felt as if I were looking through her eyes into a gentle heart.

The children's images are technically crude, full of apparent mistakes; they're hardly accomplished works of high art. Still, I would take David Lane's Front Yard #1 any day over Leibovitz's Christmas Soledad Prison. Lane's shot is compositionally unbalanced; a large bush at the right would be read by most as a mistake; one of his six heads is cut off above the mouth. But the Soledad figures seem rhythmically, almost balletically arranged--too perfect. Lane's figures, grouped around a building entrance, are in a variety of poses--seated, standing, one walking toward the doorway. The picture's asymmetries and imbalances carry with them the suggestion of a confusing, not always comprehensible world.

Jumping Rope by Maurice Lane is also enlivened by a "mistake"--an out-of-focus hand holding a rope enters the frame in the left foreground, in front of the three principal figures. Yet the hand also underlines the physicality of the subject.

William Gipson is represented by four pictures that display a consistent vision of urban spaces. From the Porch #3 is a view of two-flats, garage roofs, windows; it's a tight urban grid of rectangles and near-rectangles framed to emphasize the geometry of the shapes. From the Porch #1 and #2 are very different, both presenting angular views of the street below--could these be from the same porch? Several figures are seen in #1 and #2: in the background of #2 a dog is visible behind a fence. In Dog Through Fence we see what appears to be the same dog; but now we're at street level, the links in the fence close to the lens and out of focus, imposing their own diagonal grid on the scene. I liked very much the juxtaposition of these two views, reminding one of the multiple perspectives made possible by upper-story porches, fences--by the complexity of urban spaces. Each of these four photos is almost confrontational in its effect; the scenes are presented so directly that one almost feels that the buildings, the people, the dog are staring back.

Then there are a variety of photos as interesting for their choice of subject as for their composition. In contrast to Leibovitz's ominously beautiful Stealth bomber, we have the silhouette of trees in Kenya Harvey's Trees--hardly a new subject for photography but beautiful to look at if only for the diversity of patterns the branches and leaves make. Vicki Bennett's Door and Brick is framed with remarkable precision; she renders the symmetry of a glass door surrounded by brick walls with blunt directness, her camera taking its cue from the shapes before her. And then there are Wall and Manhole by Maurice Lane--simple views of ordinary surfaces, though the wall has clumps of what looks like newly applied mortar disrupting its evenness and the cover in Manhole is off-center, its edge out of frame. Another mistake perhaps.

But these mistakes remind one of the imperfections of any human observer. I prefer the imperfection of a random misframing that stirs the eye to the vacuous perfection of a Jodie Foster sunset or a Schwarzenegger on horseback. Leibovitz asks us to gape at, even worship, the extraordinary: beautiful faces, perfect bodies, brilliant minds, famous actors, rock legends. By the simple acts of photographing doorways and manholes, these children remind us that there are things worth looking at everywhere--and that what we see around us rather than what we possess gives life its greatest meaning.

For the last few decades urban archaeologists Mimi Melnick and her late husband Robert have studied manhole covers, many of which have distinguished designs in the styles of their periods; their book, Manhole Covers, is due out in the fall from the MIT Press. It's a small piece of evidence, perhaps, that if we adults try to see without expectation and preconception we can learn for ourselves what children already know.

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