Saturday, October 13, 2012

Two Top Photography Retrospectives: Annie Leibovitz in Columbus, Herb Ritts in Cincinnati

Dexter, 2012

     There are two current major solo photography exhibitions in Ohio.  A retrospective of Annie Leibovitz’s work (over 150 images) from 1970 – 2011 has taken over most of the Wexner Center on Ohio State’s campus.  The Cincinnati Art Museum plays host to 60 representative images from Herb Ritts’
oeuvre.  The Wexner is free on the first Sunday of every month; the Cincinnati Art Museum is always free.  

Wexner Center Entrance
     Annie Leibovitz is a household name and arguably the most famous contemporary American photographer.  Her primary focus has been portraiture over the past forty-two years, moving through various periods (Rolling Stone during the Me Decade, Vanity Fair from the Era of Excess to the current Bipolar Culture, and an intriguing personal odyssey that I’ll return to later), and changing styles.  Initially, she seemed like a photo essayist, in the manner of Robert Frank.  She loves his work and owns some of it.  His classic The Americans centered on the loneliness of ordinary citizens in both neutral interiors and overwhelming exterior landscapes during the outward peace and prosperity of the 1950s.  However, in following The Rolling Stones’ 1975 American tour, she coalesced popular music with a young, maverick point of view that visually realized Rolling Stone magazine’s political and cultural agenda.  Instead of continuing in a realistic, Richard Avedon influenced vein, she collaborated/conspired with the subject in the manner of Diane Arbus, producing such images as Bette Midler within a huge bouquet of roses or Whoopi Goldberg in a milk bath.  

Whoopi Goldberg, Berkeley, California, 1984
Leibovitz with
Demi Moore Portrait*
     There’s a wry sense of humor at play in that era as if she and her subjects were winking at the viewer.  Her portraiture work for Vanity Fair is more elegant in its color palette and lighting, resulting in a greater glamour and superficial beauty.  The attitude is more direct (Demi Moore made up as if she’s going to a cocktail party while clutching her hugely pregnant stomach) and less satirical (the Vegas showgirls group and the plain, giraffe-necked, middle-aged women who play them).  She’s very literary in her approach and what I mean is that if the viewer doesn’t know the subject – specifically, the story of the subject – then the meaning of the image is lost.  For example, 
Tony Curtis and
Jack Lemmon, 1995
there’s a charming, poignant picture of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in women’s foundation garments and some drag make-up, but without wigs or costumes in 1995.  It refers to their legendary performances in Some Like It Hot, but it means little when another viewer had to explain to her companion who the actors were and what they played in that film.  I wonder what he initially thought he was seeing – two aging drag queens caught in the middle of their toilette and mugging for the camera?  

Annie Leibovitz Exhibition Area 
"Pilgrimage" Gallery
     One gallery is devoted to the personal (i.e. non-commercial) “Pilgrimage” series where she journeyed to the homes of various historical literary and performing icons and shot objects and settings that were significant to them, rather than any facial representation of those people.  This is symbolic in a way that is the antithesis of her famous portraits because the objects are beautiful and important in themselves, without the viewer having to know anything about who owned or were connected to them beyond the image she creates.  Henri Cartier-Bresson is another of the forebears she reveres and if he had shot in color and concentrated only on concrete objects, this collection is what he might have dreamed up.  It’s double and triple hung in a 19th century European manner, which lends a sense of history and gravitas to the people themselves, but it is tough to see or grasp easily.

Wexner Center Architecture
     A couple of notes about the Wexner Center:  it’s not holding up well even though it’s only about twenty-three years old.  There’s rust on some of the exterior supports and if you turn up at the wrong end of the building, it’s a heck of a refreshing walk.  It’s a deconstructionist styled building that now just seems perverse and dated, rather than a serious questioning of right angle construction.  It’s basically a rigidly crooked building and none of the gallery space can be adapted or rethought for a specific exhibition.  This is troubling when it’s an important artist like Leibovitz.; her vision has to be bent into its layout, rather than it acting as a host for her vision.

*Photo by Marc Silber of HYPERLINK.

Entrance to Herb Ritts L.A. Style at the Cincinnati Art Museum
     The Cincinnati Art Museum, on the other hand, is a space that always seems ready to be adjusted, expanded, or reconstructed even as it remains resolutely its own being.  The gallery space has been beautifully reconceived for Herb Ritts L.A. Style, his vision of a twenty-year period in L.A. that recalls the greatest eras of art in the Western canonical tradition. The curators design exhibitions with such individuality and beauty that viewers may feel they’re seeing something on the level of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and, basically, they are.

Herb Ritts
     Herb Ritts came from money in L.A. and his print and video work was generally in black and white.  Some of his most famous videos captured Madonna and Chris Isaak at the height of their popularity:  the musicians’ cultural power may have declined, but the images are legendary.  His major focus was commercially in fashion and personally in the nude.  He is (was – he died of AIDS in 2002) completely visual; the viewer need know nothing about the portrait subject besides the image itself.  Yes, there are shots of Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, and Christy Turlington, among others, but nothing about their biography means anything besides the fact that they look extraordinary and timeless.  As Crawford said, Ritts made his subjects look like they dreamed they could look.

Stephanie, Cindy, Christy, Tatjana, Naomi, Hollywood, 1989
Clay Nude on Mantel, 1989

     Ritts’ antecedents are rarely photographers, except for Man Ray.  Instead, he refers to Classical Greek nude friezes, sculptors such as Cellini and Michelangelo in presenting the male body, and the graphic sense of Picasso in his image of one of Pedro Almodovar’s favorite actresses Rossy de Palma– she looks like a black & white Dora Maar weeping for real.  
Rossy de Palma, 1990

His use of the human body may, at times, seem erotic, but it’s never sexy, coy, or titillating. Instead, the nude is a medium for reflecting light, shadow, and other materials. His celebrity portraits concentrate on the features of his subjects and how they’re lit, rather than who they are.  For instance, Mel Gibson and Elton John have never looked before or again as simultaneously ordinary/extraordinary as they do in his work and that’s the point. 

Mel Gibson, 1985

Both exhibits run through December 30, 2012.

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