Before visiting the exhibition at Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, London, I knew very little about Annie Liebovitz's work. Growing up with a Dad who is passionate about photography, she was a name I heard mentioned every now and then, generally not in the most positive light. But on reading about her new exhibition in the latest issue of Vogue, my Dad and I knew we had to go.
The location of the exhibition is as interesting as Liebovitz's photography. Wapping, a district on the Thames in East London, is drenched in gentrification. Originally docklands, it was destroyed by bombing in the second World War, and wasn't rebuilt until the 1980s. Nowadays, as is too often the case, the average price for a flat or house is £854,507 or £1,333,167 respectively. The atmosphere is pretty stale, quite honestly. The rich history of the area has been pretty much wiped-out, in favour for the culture of 20-something City workers and their Sunday running clubs.
As an exhibition setting, the converted Power Station is frankly, very cool. It is stripped-back, raw, and feels refreshingly honest in comparison to the studio flats that surround it. The exhibition space is in a large central hall, with exposed brick walls, big windows and high ceilings. The display is made up of 3 large screens covering three sides of a square, with the final side being a board of her photos. This board (seen above), in terms of presentation, is disappointing at best. The prints aren't of the best quality, and are just pinned in with drawing pins to the board (you can see the holes made by multiple attempts to align them along the string). The perspex sheet in front of the pictures reflects the light behind the viewer, preventing you from being able to even see the pictures along the top. The large screens, which are a slideshow of all her work, work well on the whole, and allow the viewer to really focus on each photo.
However, none of this detracts from the staggering quality of her work. Her composition and lighting is spot-on every time. She plays about with colour in a way that is always interesting and never becomes too same-y, even after viewing more than fifty of her photos. Each photo is built around the individual subject, subtly reflecting who they are in a very engaging way. Many are shot on location, which allows Leibovitz to communicate the personality of lesser known figures like Tavi Gevinson (below, 2nd) to an audience who may be unfortunately unaware of her championing of the beautiful angst of being a teenager, and refusing to apologize for it or her talent and intelligence. It also allows a more interesting look at figures such as Gloria Steinem (below), presenting her primarily as a writer, rather than her usual portrayal as a great feminist warrior (she is, of course, both). Her studio work is equally as engaging. Often the perspective reveals much of the studio set-up, creating a somewhat meta layer, but also reminding the audience how much of construct studio portraiture is, drawing our attention back to the subject as a human being, rather than just a superficial object.
As a feminist, I was totally in awe of how she captures women. No individual is presented the same as another, nobody is overly sexualised, and she limits cliches of femininity, without ever aping men. The uniting attribute of Leibovitz's photography, which isn't obvious at first, is her ability to capture the strength of all her subjects.
"Women: New Portraits" runs from January 16th to February 7th 2016, before touring worldwide.