Annie Leibovitz tackles huge topic in Presidio photo show

Annie Leibovitz returned to The City this week to open the U.S. premiere of her photography exhibit “WOMEN: New Portraits,” a small yet ambitious show tucked into the rough confines of a former U.S. Army training building at Crissy Field.  

For Leibovitz, the celebrated photographer who has taken some of the seminal portraits of the past half century, bringing the show to the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge was meaningful. She began taking photographs for Rolling Stone while she was a painting major at the San Francisco Art Institute. She moved to New York when the magazine did, in 1978.

“I thought I was going to be there for only a year, and I have been trying to come back ever since,” she told press and guests at a private preview on Tuesday.

The compact show, which opens Friday, features three dozen or so new portraits tacked up casually on a large brown board behind a sheet of plexiglass. The prints, all of women in the news or otherwise prominent in the public consciousness, have bent corners riddled with the holes of prior showings.

The aesthetic of the show is undone, signaling, as Leibovitz explained, the unfinished nature of the project.

“It’s appropriate for these photographs that there is never going to be an end to it,” Leibovitz said.

Portraits in the show will change with each city, as Leibovitz adds, subtracts and shoots more photos. The show already has been in London and Tokyo on a 10-city tour. The only other U.S. location will be New York.

The project started nearly three decades ago, on the suggestion of her partner Susan Sontag. Leibovitz recalled how she had initially scoffed at the idea of composing a photography project on the theme of women.

“I thought it was a bad idea,” she said, laughing. “I was really reluctant because I thought, ‘This is just too big, too broad of a subject, too big of an idea.’ It’s like going out to photograph the ocean or the sea, I just didn’t see it.”

Despite her misgivings, Leibovitz took on the challenge, which led to a 1999 book and exhibition “Women,” which this show continues.

The original project featured portraits of school teachers, miners, soldiers, scientists, workers and mothers, suggesting the dizzying array of roles women inhabit. The older photos are projected on large multi-panel screens, providing a counterpoint to the new work.

Gloria Steinem, one of the women pictured in the exhibit (who was on hand Tuesday), wrote in the show’s introduction: “No notion as limited as gender can account for all the truths in this exhibit.”

Standing with Leibovitz in front of the photos, Steinem said, “In each of these photographs you know you are in a novel, you know you have entered a really complicated, unique human story. All these women are individuals.”

The exhibit’s sponsor, the global financial services giant UBS, used the opening of the San Francisco show to launch “Women for Women,” a program intended to address “topics of global relevance to women and women’s rights.”

If the corporate sponsorship suggested a possible lack of artistic independence, Leibovitz was quick to dispel such notions.

“Elizabeth Warren is on the wall,” she said, an example of someone perhaps not on UBS’ list of favorites.

Leibovitz shared stories behind the images: how she was allowed only 45 minutes to photograph Malala Yousafzai in her classroom in Birmingham, England; her admiration for Misty Copeland, the first black lead ballerina with the American Ballet Theatre; her surprise by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s CEO, wearing a leather skirt exuding confidence and allure; and how TV producer Shonda Rhimes kicked back in the president’s chair texting on the Oval Office set for the show “Scandal.”

The unscripted moment indicated how times have changed in just a generation since the start of the “Women” portrait project.

It was easier to find subjects this time around, she said, calling the process of finding interesting, confident women to photograph “effortless.”  

Did Leibovitz answer her initial question of whether the topic of “Women” was too big to produce a coherent exhibition as she initially feared? Maybe, but perhaps that became the point.

The work is unfinished, as is the role of women in society, perpetually a contested zone, as well as the role of men, and of gender and sex, as exemplified by the inclusion of the Vanity Fair portrait of the newly transformed Caitlyn Jenner Leibovitz shot last summer.

“I undertook the 1999 project to see who we are, that we are so diverse, that it’s not as simple as what we imagined,” Leibovitz said. ”We are so complicated, there are so many parts to us. It is the sea. It is the ocean.”

WOMEN:New Portraits
Where: Presidio’s Crissy Field, 649 Old Mason St., S.F.
When: Opens Friday; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, except until 8 p.m. Fridays; closes April 17
Tickets: Free, but online booking recommended

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