A Project Is Never Really Done: Anne Leibovitz’s Latest Work

Annie Leibovitz is considered by many to be one of America’s greatest portrait photographers. Her name brings to mind iconic images that have helped define contemporary celebrity portraiture: the provocative and thoughtful picture of John Lennon and Yoko Ono; the controversial shot of partly clad Miley Cyrus at 15; Sylvester Stallone appearing nude in a Rodin-inspired pose.

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Miley Cyrus. (Photo: Copyright Annie Leibovitz. Exclusively for Vanity Fair.)

I recently came across this article  about her latest project, a continuation of her 1999 project entitled “Women.” Originally a book collaboration with her partner of 15 years, Susan Sontag, the series of portraits included schoolteachers, astronauts, Supreme Court justices, farmers, socialites, prostitutes, the first lady, coal miners, and athletes. Ms. Leibovitz employed the

German photographer August Sander’s concept of documenting “all walks of life,” and since last year, the project has since grown to include dozens of new images of female leaders in politics, sports, business, and culture.
“It really resonated,” Ms. Leibovitz said, on her choice to revisit to the series, “the project was never done.”

At the time of its inception, the book defied the tradition of photographing women for their beauty rather than their character. This re-visitation and addition to the project takes that concept a step further. “Women: New Portraits” is appearing in a new format that extends beyond the printed page.

Sponsored by a carte blanche commission from UBS, the series will appear in different locations, with new shots added to the exhibition each time it appears. According to the chief marketing officer at UBS, the company has made the exhibitions free for the public and at each space, educational programs and workshops for art students with Ms. Leibovitz will be provided.

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Gloria Steinem, left, and Annie Leibovitz in the photographer’s studio. (Photo: Copyright Philip Montgomery for The New York Times.)

One of the most striking elements of the new project’s international tour is that it appears in historically rich “pop-up” sites where the audience is invited to join Ms. Leibovitz in “talking circles,” led by Gloria Steinem, the 82-year-old political activist and women’s advocate.

Her portrait was one of the first to be added to the updated project and shows her at her desk in front of her laptop, surrounded by stacks of books and papers.
The “talking circles” have focused on a wide range of issues, from sexual violence against women in Mexico City to women’s experiences in the technology world in San Francisco. A circle of chairs is placed in the center of each installation, bordered by long bulletin boards showcasing the new portraits. In this way, Ms. Leibovitz’s new work is completely interactive and personal.

The exhibition will open in New York on Nov. 18 at a gymnasium of the old Bayview Correctional Facility, a former women’s prison that closed after damage from Hurricane Sandy. Mrs. Steinem and Ms. Leibovitz have invited formerly incarcerated women from Bayview to be docents and will lead a discussion on women’s rights and female incarceration in a public gathering on Nov. 16.

“The new work is more “democratic,” remarks Ms. Leibovitz, “it’s more personal, more satisfying, more concerned with what someone does rather than how they look.” And certainly this is reflected in the portraits themselves:
Misty Copeland, the first black prima ballerina of the American Ballet Company in New York City, appears beautifully strong and confident against a greying background, clothed in a simple gauzy white dress and pointe shoes.

Singer Adele is photographed at her piano, television producer Shonda Rhimes appears on set, and the Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai is in a classroom.

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Misty Copeland. (Photo: Copyright Annie Leibovitz. From ‘Women: New Portraits.’)

“You can’t look at all those images without seeing the true human diversity of women, not characterized by whatever feminine idea or roles of who we’re supposed to be,” said Ms. Steinem.

Annie Leibovitz’s latest project  serves as a powerful reminder that our creative work is never really done; our relationship with our current and past projects can expand and change to reflect the dynamics of our lives and the world today. And just as “Women: New Portraits” highlights the human diversity, strength, self-confidence, and character of women, it is my hope that the world will take notice and follow suit.

Photo Credit: First Second Third