I’m writing papers every single week about photos, photographers, & photographic processes. I’m sharing this short piece illuminating Leibovitz’s work from the 90’s, because I think it relates so closely to the political climate right now. Annie Leibovitz put this collection together in a book form back in 1999 - a complex look at women of this century. And yes, we should be looking at women right now. We should be hearing their stories and listening to their concerns. When an all-male panel is testifying on birth control, it’s clear we have some fighting (and some screaming) to do. Here are a few photos of women that scream in their own ways.
“Each of these pictures must stand on its own. But the ensemble says, So this is what women are now-as different, as varied, as heroic, as forlorn, as conventional, as unconventional as this.” - Susan Sontag
Annie Leibovitz is a household name when it comes to photography. She started out at Rolling Stone, but over her career, she has shot covers for a variety of magazines - including Vogue. I’ve always been a fan of her covers and fashion photography, but recently I’ve become familiar with her work outside of the glamour magazine world. In particular, her collection of photographs of women.
Women truly captures a variety of individual stories within each photograph. In every picture, Leibovitz utilizes different photographic techniques. There are different levels of tonality, some photos in black and white, others in color. Her photograph of Louise Bourgeois, a sculptor, is
particularly beautiful. She captures the many creases, lines, and wrinkles across Bourgeois’ face, utilizing the way the light is splayed over the woman’s cheekbone. The photograph is crisp, clear, and feels as though we have caught the subject during a private moment of silent reflection. Additionally, though the sculptor has her eyes closed, you still follow the line of her gaze to her hands. Leibovitz structures the photograph to allow the many signs of age to point us to the part of this woman’s body that allows her to create and mold and sculpt.
The Women series is very successful at displaying the many photographic talents of Leibovitz. Her photo of Missy Giove, a Colorado mountain biker, showcases her grasp on the power of movement in a photograph. The photo reminds me of Robert Capa’s photographs of war. The rushing quality, the blurriness in certain sections - all while Giove’s face is the most in focus piece of the picture. Looking at the photo, the viewer can almost feel as though they are speeding along with Giove and it’s the look of determination across her face that continues to propel you through the photograph.
In one of the photographs, Leibovitz calls back to past photographic work. Her photograph of
Martina Navratilova immediately reminded me of Lewis Hine’s 1920 photograph of a man working on a steam pump. Much of Hine’s photographs captured men at work, often doing
incredibly laborious or dangerous jobs that required agility and strength. As a tennis player, Navratilova is similarly reliant on the strength of her body - specifically her arms. It is the tonal strength in both photographs that helps show the glare of the machines and how they loom above each subject, while still successfully capturing the muscles, as they flex and work hard to pull at parts of the machinery. Part of Leibovitz’s strength in this photo is that she is not only referring back to past photographic work, she is using the juxtaposition to illuminate the way women’s roles are continuously changing. As Sontag puts it, women are now “different” and “unconventional” compared to the past. Perhaps unconventional in the fact that we can now often be as conventional or unconventional in our lives as we choose.
One of my favorite things about Leibovitz’s photography is that she develops some of the most unbelievable portraiture. In this collection, she cycles between posed portraits and photos that are more in the moment, but in all of her photographs she is able to capture an essence within each woman. Each picture truly does tell a story, and they are all incredibly different ones.
That last photograph of Leibovitz’s that I will include is an incredible example of a more posed photograph that still manages to portray an incredibly tender and personal moment. The photograph features actress Gwyneth Paltrow and her mother, Blythe Danner. I laughed when I noticed that Leibovitz did not choose to title this photograph, Gwyneth Paltrow with mother, Blythe Danner. As with all of her other photographs, they are listed by name and profession only. I laughed because Leibovitz is completely right to not note Danner as Paltrow’s mother; you don’t need this in the notes because it’s so obvious in the photograph. The image is gorgeous; the lighting is soft and the colors are delicate. The cool green behind the women emphasizes the warmth and tenderness in their faces. The peacefulness to Paltrow’s face is of absolute and total safety. Her quiet face and closed eyes immediately conjures the feeling so associated with being looked after by a parent. Equally disarming is Danner’s somewhat quiet look into the camera, still steady and intense - she is clearly keeping careful watch over the woman in her arms.
Overall, I feel that what I love most about Leibovitz and this collection of her work is not only her ability to make beautiful photographs, but her interest in looking at women in art through a more social context. In my own work, I am most fascinated by people. I love being able to take a photograph and successfully capture a moment, and within that moment, a story with depth and detail. Beyond this, I have always loved photographing the women in my life and have personally found them to be photographic subjects who are more willing to be vulnerable with the camera. I am including a photo that is also a mother and daughter scene - it was a quickly captured photograph, but remains a favorite of mine. I love the symmetry of the table - and the almost mirror image of the two women, as though they are the young and old version of the same person.
It is only a theory, but I believe that for many women being documented is a way to assert their humanity and own emancipation. In a photograph, to gaze at a camera, to create a persona for yourself and be able to leave behind an actual imprint is a sign of freedom. Through photographs, women are able to document their triumphs - and also their struggles. They are able to raise the question of who they are and as Sontag explains, “there is no equivalent “question of men.” Men, unlike women, are not a work in progress.” In many ways she is completely correct; women are an ever-continuing work in progress. While we move forward in certain freedoms, we are still set back in many ways. We have jobs we couldn’t have years ago, but are still beat by our partners. We can wear the clothing we choose, but we still have to fight for birth control and to have rights over our bodies. It is this dichotomy that Leibovitz captures and proves her to be not only a talented photographer, but a skilled social commentator.