First impression: Annie Leibovitz show at the Wexner Center

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From the September 27, 2012 edition

I’ve been through the completed Annie Leibovitz exhibition at the Wexner Center twice — once on the Friday morning media-only tour with Leibovitz herself and again at the Wexner Center members party that night. I still haven’t laid eyes on half of the images.

If you’re pondering a visit, the short answer is yes, you must go. The long answer is you’ll need and/or want to go back several times to soak it all in. I’ve been thinking about and looking at parts of the show for a few weeks now (I wrote Alive’s cover story this week about the work that went in to making the show) but I still feel unfamiliar with much of it.

The media tour with Leibovitz was amazing, of course. There is no substitute for hearing the story behind a piece of art from the artist herself. We were regaled with stories about the day Nixon left the White House (“We were young, we were crazy. We were with Rolling Stone. They knew they couldn’t ignore us, so they gave us credentials.”) and about photographing the Rolling Stones, Keith Haring, Joan Didion and more.

It was more than a tad ironic to see a few dozen rapt people, notebooks, pencils and cameras in hand, following this woman whose career started on our end of the bargain. We were there to document the documentarian.

If that’s weird for Leibovitz, it sure doesn’t show. She is utterly without pretense and struck me only as a storyteller and artist who was excited for the opportunity to share her work. No matter that work included shooting a portrait of Queen Elizabeth. Leibovitz spent as much time — and as much enthusiasm — speaking about Arnold Schwarzenegger as she did four Las Vegas showgirls whom she photographed in and out of costume.

There are loose themes running throughout the show, but mostly I saw the range that curator Bill Horrigan spoke of in our interviews for my cover story. The Master Set is a series of portraits, for sure. They all take on a human subject or two. But they do so in completely different languages at different points in the exhibit. There are lots of studies of gender roles and expression, but there are also statements on the creative process, power, money and, yes, the cult of celebrity.

Much attention has been heaped on the Master Set, because people equate those photos (not correctly, by the way) with a greatest-hits collection of Leibovitz’s work for Vanity Fair and Vogue. Heap some of your own attention on the Pilgrimage series, which feels ghostly, vast, substantial.

These photos were taken at cultural landmarks in the U.S. and Britain, in the spaces where writers, artists, inventors and big thinkers made their contributions to our world. Those people — Emily Dickinson, Elvis Presley, Sigmund Freud, Virginia Woolf, among others — are no longer with us in person. But they linger in spirit in these photos.

Leibovitz called the Pilgrimage work the “peripheral vision” and “notetaking” that goes into her people portraiture. At the Wexner Center, these photographs are hung salon style, at varying heights, as they might be hung in your home. This installation is housed in a gray-walled (Annie Gray, aka Benjamin Moore’s Stonybrook) gallery that feels very much like an oversized living room festooned with family photos. Who are these relatives? Arguably those creative and innovative forefathers and –mothers who brought us to the creative and innovative present.

In an exhibition of more than 200 photographs, a storyline could be hard to find. Not in these galleries. Part of the joy of seeing this exhibition is discovering the relationships between photos, either in their composition, their theme or the relationship between their subjects. I’m still pondering the juxtaposition of a photograph of the Bush administration and one of “Star Wars” robot R2D2 in a crate. They are on the wall beside each other, awaiting your interpretation. More clearly, Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams and Pete Seeger hang out in their own cluster. Queen Elizabeth stands alone. Barack Obama looks directly into the lens; Michelle Obama is photographed in profile, a gleaming pearl hanging from her left ear lobe.

This exhibition is truly a must-see. There don’t seem to be future plans to exhibit the Master Set elsewhere — though Leibovitz dropped tantalizing details about on ongoing project involving artists at work. Visit on a weekday, too, when the galleries will be less full and you will feel more at ease to stand and ponder these images on your own time.