Annie Leibovitz is the dean of celebrity portraiture in America, enshrined as a fixture at some of the nation's biggest magazines for nearly four decades. She got her start at Rolling Stone, where she worked from 1970 to 1983, and, as many know, took the last photographs of John Lennon just hours before his murder. Since 1985 she's been at Vanity Fair, chronicling a who's who of the glamorous and the mighty. Most recently, her résumé was further augmented by landing the much-prized first-photograph commission for celebrity baby Suri Cruise. A sitting with Leibovitz is as essential to today's glitterati as it was for the European courtesans of earlier centuries to be rendered on canvas by master painters a confirmation of status, an event almost akin to a coronation.
That Leibovitz is nearly as big a name as her subjects is more a testament to her strength as an artist than it is any active attempt to attract fame. Her personal life remains mostly private. It's appropriate that we know more about her subjects than we do about her because Leibovitz is an instant biographer, distilling a lifetime into a single frame. Her best work rides on the tension between candid and posed. With elaborately staged and lit setups, her portraits are designed to look spontaneous and retain an emotional immediacy.
Annie Leibovitz: American Music, currently showing at the Detroit Institute of Arts, finds her back where she started, with the singers, soul shouters and rock 'n' rollers she knows so well.
American Music isn't a sweeping career retrospective. It focuses on work for a book project by the same name (conveniently available for purchase in the DIA gift shop that visitors are funneled into on their way out). The iconic magazine covers for which she's famous are only given a cursory glance, as part of a timeline on the first wall of the exhibit, swiftly summarizing the highlights in a career full of stellar achievements. Guests are encouraged to take the audio tour, narrated by the artist. The audio tour lends insight into each of the photos. Leibovitz describes her subjects' personal styles, what their homes were like and peppers the commentary with details like the weather on the day of the shoot.
The 70 photos mainly focus on the private lives of musicians: in the car or at home, almost always in quiet surroundings. This exhibit, organized by Seattle's Experience Music Project (EMP), is thoughtfully put together, with a gradual thematic progression from older blues, soul and country performers and then into contemporary hip hop and rock 'n' roll artists. A casual shot of a sing-along in R.L Burnside's living room is followed by one of an aged Pete Seeger, and then gives way to a gorgeous shot of Dolly Parton, lying in the grass like a sexpot starlet. Aiming at the heart of Americana, Leibovitz stumbles over the sort of ramshackle juke joints and shabby shacks that loom large in the Mississippi delta, both in myth and reality. Particularly effective is a static look at the Po Monkey Lounge in Meridian, Miss. it's a bit of rustic, Walker Evans-style starkness in the midst of all the rock 'n' roll sparkle.
The bridge between authenticity and artifice breaks down in a shot of Tom Waits, glowering over a piano with a staged attempt at the kind of gravitas that the real deal bluesmen seem to exude effortlessly. Some things are hard to fake, like Willie Nelson's magnificent world-weary wrinkles or guitarist John Frusciante's grisly heroin-scarred arms. There is also real tenderness, as in the snap of Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson cuddling on a bench in a case of mismatched puppy love. Many of the pictures are straightforward, and some are conceptual masterpieces, like country patriarch Porter Wagoner leaning on the gray brick walls of the Grand Ole Opry, with just a flash of his neon-purple-sequined nudie suit peeking out like a peacock plume. Then there's the Beach Boys' reluctant genius Brian Wilson, in his bathrobe poolside, with an ominous gray sky closing in on him as if to rain all over his California dreams.
Leibovitz seems to have a more nebulous grasp, however, on artists of the moment, as bland portraits of Beck and Ryan Adams hang side by side; the two of them, grinning, are barely distinguishable from each other. Yes, both of them are handsome and vacant, but for very different reasons unseen here.
The last room of the exhibit focuses on such Detroit artists as Aretha Franklin, John Lee Hooker, Eminem and the requisitely shirtless Iggy Pop, looking as sinewy and frightfully scarecrow-skinny as ever. The White Stripes, with Jack as a knife-thrower and Meg as his showgirl target, indulge in the sort of showmanship that most of the exhibit avoids, but it is, as Leibovitz says, an irresistible bit of "dada."
Perhaps the most moving photo in the whole lot is of Patti Smith in suburban exile, still mourning the loss of her husband, MC5 spark plug Fred "Sonic" Smith. She lounges on a mattress in the living room because she can't bear to sleep in their bedroom. Whether any of this is real or all part of a calculated myth machine is hard to tell, and pretty much irrelevant in the hands of such a gifted image-maker.
Annie Leibovitz: American Music runs through Jan. 7 at the Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-7900.Corey Hall is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]