Los Angeles

View of “Annie Leibovitz,” 2019.

View of “Annie Leibovitz,” 2019.

Annie Leibovitz

Annie Leibovitz’s “The Early Years, 1970–1983: Archive Project No. 1” at Hauser & Wirth in Los Angeles began with a wall-size timeline anchoring us firmly amid the total noise of this thirteen-year stretch. The timeline traced a capricious selection of personal and pop-cultural tidbits with a relatively sympathetic focus on the American spirit and zeitgeist, its aspirations and rock-star veneer, with occasional detours toward political injustices and small and large tragedies. Two vast galleries were divided into seven rooms by freestanding panels, to which more than four thousand images, mostly black-and-white “cheap copies” generated by an Epson printer, were loosely pushpinned, flirting with a grid made of string. The informality of the space implied a process laid bare, or at least restaged and illustrated. The intentionally overwhelming number of images made the show less about individual photos—though one might occasionally hook you—and more about probing a period in an artist’s body of work and its concurrent cultural moment. Bodies lie strewn on an airport runway in Texas in anticipation of the arrival of Guru Maharaj Ji; the slender torsos of Maria Schneider and Joan Townsend embrace, limbs crisscrossing in the frame; Sly Stone drives by in a blur of motion.

The time stamp is a convention for framing bodies of work whose intent (or outcome) is to define eras. In this case, the bracket contained Leibovitz’s entire tenure at Rolling Stone, a formative time for the young photographer and the magazine alike. Leibovitz’s images capture not only the interviewees but also the interview processes themselves, which, as she depicted them, were sexy, laid-back, and intimate, conducted in people’s homes or workplaces. Through Rolling Stone’s emerging aesthetic—increasingly reliant on images in lieu of words—and its actively experimental voice, Leibovitz found herself reporting on presidential campaigns alongside the likes of Timothy Crouse and Hunter S. Thompson, whose narrative styles, like Leibovitz’s, forged a kind of equality between the cultural figures in front of and behind the camera. She documented all characters with parity: public figure, journalist, guard rolling up the red carpet after the event’s conclusion. It was an era in which institutional distrust was peaking and a focus on authenticity was renewed. It was also the age of New Journalism. This “gonzo” style catalyzed a new kind of representation in which the techniques of fiction were used to push facts to the limit, creating a dramatic emotional picture that illustrated a collective history of gossip, entertainment, and politics. In these waters, Leibovitz captured the downfall of the presidency as both insider and outsider. When documenting Richard Nixon’s resignation, the artist upended the typical photographer’s mandate “Right place, right time” by diverting her camera from the live speaker to a TV monitor capturing Nixon’s face amid the gathered audience, casting the experience as intimate yet collective. The subject becomes the crowd; the image reflects the live and the mediated. Leibovitz emerges as a portraitist of her subjects and their publics at once.

Still, celebrities were tantalizingly abundant in this show. But Leibovitz is careful to provide an alternative relationship to them: one of access and therefore intimacy, thus grafting their ideas more closely onto their lives and showing them to be performing even in seemingly candid moments. This rawer experience was particularly loaded for contemporary viewers who knew the outcomes of these stories: John Lennon died hours after the iconic, touching photograph of him curled up naked alongside a fully clothed Yoko Ono was taken; beautiful rock stars shown at their peak soon began to decline; Richard Pryor and Lily Tomlin performed in tandem for Leibovitz’s lens just before the former’s emotional unraveling. Leibovitz’s immersive approach to documentary photos frames her as an unreliable narrator invested in intimacy and human scale, with a distinct flair for capturing what Susan Sontag called “the very American, very modern faith in the possibility of continuous self-transformation.”