Annie Leibovitz on Women

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Wednesday, June 28, 2017 - 09:00

On Sunday 22 October Annie Leibovitz joins us at Southbank Centre to discuss her new work Annie Leibovitz: Portraits 2005-2016, as part of London Literature Festival. Ahead of her appearance here we take a moment to look at her previous work on Women, a project Leibovitz has taken to view as being forever incomplete.


In 1999 Annie Leibovitz, in collaboration with partner Susan Sontag, put together Women, a collection of female portrait photography, to acknowledge and celebrate the status, the achievements, and the roles of women at the end of the 20th Century.

The subject of the photographs, taken especially for the book, occupy a broad spectrum. They include farmers, coal miners, showgirls, movie stars, a surgeon, a general, a rap artist and the secretary of state. Individual photographs, which carry a collective message, as Sontag explained in the book’s accompanying essay.

Each of these pictures must stand on its own. But the ensemble says, So this what women are now - as different, as varied, as heroic, as forlorn, as conventional, as unconventional as this.
Susan Sontag, Women, 1999

However, despite receiving significant and just acclaim, it was a project which the Leibovitz felt should never stand still. ‘It really resonated’ she told New York Times in 2016, but ‘the project was never done.’ This sense of the project as being open-ended, something of a starting point with no determinable end, is perhaps inevitable, given Leibovitz’ own oft-quoted admission that she is never not a photographer.

One doesn’t stop seeing. One doesn’t stop framing. It doesn’t turn off and turn on. It’s on all the time.
Annie Leibovitz

And so, seventeen years on, came a continuation to that initial project, Women: New Portraits, an exhibition featuring a whole new collection of portraits for a whole new generation of women. Celebrities, CEOs, activists, even Queen Elizabeth II herself are committed to canvas by Leibovitz as she continues to chart the changing notion of what it is to be a woman.

This time, that sense of fluidity, of a work never finished was brought more keenly to the fore, as Leibovitz took the exhibition around the globe, and continued to expand it with every stop. In all Women: New Portraits visited ten cities, from San Francisco to Singapore, with Leibovitz photographing prominent women from each one, cementing the idea of a work in progress and brilliantly fusing the old with the new.

You can’t look at all those images without seeing the true human diversity of women, not characterised by whatever feminine idea or roles of who we’re supposed to be.
Gloria Steinem, journalist and activist, who assisted Leibovitz with Women: New Portraits

To drop convention and further bring women, and the female voice, to the fore Women: New Portraits was hosted not in museums or galleries, but in historically rich pop-up sites - such as Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, London, and the former Bayview Correctional Facility, New York. Here the audience was invited to join Leibovitz and activist Gloria Steinem, who assisted in compiling the exhibition, in ‘talking circles’ on their experiences, conversations which ranged from sexual violence against women in Mexico City to the experience of women in San Francisco’s tech industry.

"WOMEN: New Portraits" – A look behind the lens: Zurich

When the initial book, Women, was conceived its aim was, as Sontag explained, to defy the tradition of photographing women for their beauty rather than their character. With Women: New Portraits that notion, though not lost, had advanced. ‘The imagery of women has to catch up with the imagery of men,’ Leibovitz told New York Times ahead of the exhibition’s showing in Manhattan. Though the exhibition’s tours are now over, you sense the project will remain alive so long as we have Leibovitz.


Annie Leibovitz comes to Southbank Centre on Sunday 22 October, to discuss her new work Annie Leibovitz: Portraits 2005-2016, as part of London Literature Festival.

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