We've come to know an Annie Leibovitz photograph not by any particular style or photographic technique but by the combination of two relatively simple characteristics -- if the photo is of a celebrity and said celebrity is doing something unusual or rather un-celebrity-like, then it must have come from the Leibovitz studio. So, Eastern European ex-bodybuilder turned action-movie star married to Kennedy scion, shirtless on horse, smoking a long cigar: Leibovitz. Or naked ex-Beatle giving peace a chance while curled in fetal position and hugging fully clothed Asian wife: Leibovitz.
But what has emerged from almost 25 years of such candid celebrity shots is a transformation -- the biggest star isn't in front of the camera but behind it. We have seen Leibovitz's work on the cover of Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, seen it in advertising for such companies as The Gap and American Express, seen it in the Corcoran Museum in Washington, D.C., and seen it at the Olympics and the World Cup. In fact, her fame is so great that in 1991 Leibovitz became the first woman artist ever to have exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. And mention to any member of the PlayStation generation great photographer names such as Strand, Stieglitz, Lange, Weston and Curtis, and you can expect no more than a shoulder shrug, but Leibovitz draws immediate recognition. Not bad for someone who started by shooting Mick and the boys not getting any satisfaction.
That is why it was such a pleasant treat to see her latest show of nudes at the cozy Amore Mills Gallery in downtown Scottsdale. In this small exhibition of recent nudes, Leibovitz spurns all the fame and commercialism of her previous work and returns to a simpler approach that harks back to the pictorialist style of the early 20th century made famous by people such as Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen.
The photographs in this exhibition don't contain the false realism of the celebrity shots, nor will their quality be relegated to merely equaling the quirkiness of the famed subject's pose. These photographs are all about the realism of the naked body while also taking into account themes sometimes lost in the commercial world -- form, composition, color, shape and classic style.
Leibovitz's nudes are akin to a photographic coup. Several of the works in this show were done as part of the new Pirelli tire calendar, which has traditionally used artists such as Bruce Weber, Richard Avedon and Herb Ritts to come up with high-gloss offerings that, though done with a touch of satire, fall into the supermodel-in-exotic-locale category. Leibovitz's 2000 calendar is a clever twist on the traditional pinup because it brings us the body as it is, without the cheesy glamour of this overworked genre. These nudes were definitely executed with an audience of women, rather than men, in mind by showing the body less as ornament and more as simple utility.
Julie Warden, Nude #8, illustrates this the best of all the works in the show. In this work, Leibovitz brings us a tight, up-close focus on the model's clutched hands delicately resting on her chest. The hands, covering one breast while revealing the other, bring home the physicality of the image with their deep veins, tangled knuckles and wrinkled skin. It's as if Leibovitz is teasing us with the nakedness of the body only to contrast it with the reality that it's not just a body to be objectified but actually belongs to a living human being. Gone are the air-brushed thighs, well-lit curves and overt sexuality commonly associated with your standard photographic nudes.
Another work, Alek Wek, Nude #7, shows only the model's darkened form contrasted against a white background. Heavily shadowed and in profile, the body becomes a nameless form, suggestive only because the title alerts us to the fact that it is a woman and that she is nude. And, reminiscent of Stieglitz, the human body gets broken down into a simple form, and artistic concerns such as form and composition diminish the nudity of the figure to a poetic afterthought. It almost makes one feel sorry for all those Italian auto mechanics forced to contemplate the inherent beauty of such a classic form instead of the silicon-inflated breasts and perfectly rounded ass of some runway queen.
For once, Leibovitz seems to understand the notion of subtlety and substance over fame and posturing. And these works, with their emphasis on form and composition, take their cue as much from the history of fine art as from the last 150 years of photography. Though some people dismiss her work as good only because of the fame of her subject matter, this series clearly demonstrates Leibovitz's skills as a traditional photographer.
In another of the Pirelli nudes, #13, Leibovitz gives us a dancer sitting on the ground, bent at the waist, with her legs stretched out in front of her. The figure would be a bit derivative of other classical nude poses if it weren't for several subtle additions that bring Leibovitz's peculiar style to the forefront. First of all, the model's skin is imbued with a delicate yet veiny blue/green that seems to be reflected from the background. This gives the photo an eerie detachment from the usual primary colors of similar works. Then, to further deconstruct the traditional pinup, Leibovitz highlights a small group of deep veins in the model's forehead and one hand lying open next to her left foot. It's amazing the effect a single outstretched hand has on the eye; the figure suddenly becomes too real, caught in a last-ditch struggle to save itself from becoming marginalized as a naked body set for praise or scorn.
While Leibovitz does spurn our usual notions of the pinup beauty, it is a shame she doesn't carry this one step further and use someone other than physically fit dancers and athletes to get her point across. Any student of Life Drawing 101 will tell you that perfectly tuned bodies are easy on the eye but are also quite boring. What is really needed to get the creative juices flowing are the curving, slouching, sagging, gravity-yielding figures of the other 99.9 percent of the population.
Who needs symmetry and proportion when paunches and flab are there for the taking? If Leibovitz is truly concerned with changing our own perception of what type of female body is considered beautiful, why rely on bodies that fit the stereotypes created by industries that exploit such beauty?
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