The New York Times

Annie Leibovitz Revisits Her Early Years

When Annie Leibovitz was starting out as a photographer in San Francisco, she would toss her camera equipment into the back of her 1963 Porsche Cabriolet convertible and tear off to Los Angeles on Highway 5. “You used to be able to go 80, 90, 100 miles per hour — it was a straightaway,” Leibovitz recalled in a recent interview at her Manhattan studio, wearing black and her signature glasses. “You would just get on it and drive like a bat out of hell.” When a national maximum limit of 55 mph was introduced in 1974, Leibovitz started racking up speeding tickets. And each time a police officer approached her car, she would photograph him with her Polaroid SX-70. “I took two,” Those Polaroids are among the more than 4,000 images from her early years that fill an exhibition of Leibovitz’s work opening in Los Angeles on Thursday at Hauser & Wirth, the first show with that gallery for the photographer, who turns 70 in October. “There is rarely somebody who has captured America like her in terms of her perception of the 20th century,” said Marc Payot, the gallery’s partner and vice president. “This show is really her beginning as a photographer and developing her language.” The exhibition — “Annie Leibovitz. The Early Years, 1970-1983: Archive Project No. 1” — comes as photographers are increasingly promoted as artists by galleries. David Zwirner, for example, in 2016 took on William Eggleston, and in 2018 began sharing representation of the Diane Arbus estate with Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco. “Photography has historically been seen by many as the poor, little cousin of the art world,” said Joshua Holdeman, a New York-based adviser who specializes in 20th-century art and photography. “Most top galleries are now realizing that photography is a cultural product just like painting and sculpture, and their programs are reflecting this.” Having seen the 2017 exhibition of Leibovitz’s early body of work at the LUMA Foundation in Arles, France, Payot said he felt strongly that he wanted to bring that show to the United States, where Leibovitz deserved to be contextualized “with the greats of the century — painters, sculptors.” “She is perceived as a photographer, but not really in the context of art,” he added. Leibovitz was actually formally trained at the San Francisco Art Institute where, she said, she studied “classic Robert Frank and Cartier-Bresson,” a style she applied to her photojournalism for Rolling Stone magazine and then Vanity Fair. “I have always thought of my work as art,” she said. “I really thought I could take pictures in this landscape of magazines. Is it easy? No. Are there compromises? Absolutely. Are there five to 10 great photographs a year that I get out of it? Absolutely.” Leibovitz said she was well aware that magazine photographers had historically not been respected as artists. “I look at what Avedon had to go through — he was made to feel somewhat ashamed of his magazine work,” she said, referring to Richard Avedon, who was often dismissed by art critics because he began his career as a fashion photographer. “You just have to wait till you’re dead — it’ll be fine,” Leibovitz said, adding, “I know who I am.” The exhibition takes up 24 walls of the gallery’s sprawling space in a former flour mill in downtown Los Angeles that opened in 2016. The images encompass the first 14 years of Leibovitz’s career, when she was shooting performers like Rod Stewart, Loretta Lynn, Elton John and Aretha Franklin, and public officials like Hubert H. Humphrey, Henry Kissinger and Edward Kennedy. To move through the show is to be immersed in the pivotal era between 1970 and 1983. “The idea was to be overwhelmed,” Leibovitz said, “not to sit there and look at each photograph, but to get this idea that it doesn’t stop. It goes on.”

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