Annie Leibovitz’s “Women: New Portraits” attempts to capture womanhood in all its forms

“We understand how men look, but with women haven’t really developed that. Who are we?”

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Can you capture the infinitive varieties of womanhood? That’s what Annie Leibovitz’s new exhibition, “Women: New Portraits”, an extension of a project she began with her late partner Susan Sontag in 1999, attempts to achieve.

“Visualising what women look like, who we are, was a very, very important thing to do,” she explained to Forbes. “Men have been portrayed, we understand in art and photographs very well. We understand how men look, but with women haven’t really developed that. Who are we? With my work, I’m very interested in what women do and who we are.”

An essay from Gloria Steinem, included in the exhibition, goes one step further: “Annie Leibovitz captures women in all our human variety and idiosyncrasy, simplicty and artifice, bravery and fear, creativity of mind as well as womb: in other words in all our humanity.”

Touring ten cities, underscoring this message of universality, it begins its journey in London: specifically, Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, a towering redbrick build from the late nineteenthcentury. The photos are mostly displayed on large monitors, cycling through Leibovitz’s extensive portfolio of female subjects.

It’s an impressive space, and the incongruous placement of glassy screens inside a crumbling brick interior is texturally interesting. But the decision to showcase Leibovitz’s work digitally in this thoroughly pre-digital space also poses practical challenges: the high, open windows let in so much light from both sides that there is a constant glare on any reflective surface, which makes actually viewing the photos difficult at certain angles and times of day. The limited number of physical prints on show are small and pinned to a board behind a layer of perspex, resulting in similar difficulties.

When it comes to the photographs themselves, the sheer range on show is dazzling: the screens jump from minimal, black and white portraits of Patti Smith and Michelle Obama to luxurious fantasy scenes (Katy Perry dripping in vintage glamour in Paris; Stella McCartney riding a horse in a mud-flecked ball gown) to abstract images of women streaked with body paint. Your taste in celebrities will no doubt dictate which women remain in your mind most vividly; I leave the exhibition primarily thinking of a blunt yet ethereal profile of Louise Bourgeois and a cherry-red image of Rihanna in Cuba I could have stared at for days.

As a representation of womanhood, though, these images are most successful when they are not simply beautiful. Some portraits are tearstained and bloody, others almost sweat with physicality. Some question notions of what a womanly body might look like, through baldness or beards or muscles. A photo of performance artist Rachel Rosenthal buried neck-down in sand seems deathly.

Some of the strongest pictures in the exhibition don’t feature any physical women at all: a screen at one point rolls through a selection of the photographs from her 2011 collection “Pilgrimages”. This collection saw Leibovitz travel to different places of spiritual significance for her, including many artists’ homes. The pictures included here are of rooms, clothes and objects that belonged to women across history: Louisa May Alcott’s dolls, Vanessa Bell’s bedroom, Elvis Presley’s mother’s dresses.

At the time, Leibovitz said that these were taken as a conscious move away from her more commercial work, adding, “I needed to save myself. I needed to remind myself of what I like to do, what I can do.” This means that “Pilgrimages” is often seen in stark contrast to the cult of celebrity: the New York Times wrote that it included “no celebrities, no models, no VIPs. The book is about something else entirely”. Of course, the act of driving miles to photograph objects given near-religious significance through their historical relationship to well-known women is still an impulse guided by a societal obsession with fame, even if Leibovitz does feel a greater personal connection with the lives and work of the women in question.

But these photos, with their lack of instantly recognisable faces, presented without description, are also some of the only ones that provoke curiosity and demand engagement from the viewer. What is that object, and who might have owned it? What would that dress signify about a person? Who would live in a house like this? The rest of the exhibition can sometimes feel overly conclusive, an identity parade with a closed question and answer. Images are shown for such a brief time and in such great quantities that it risks becoming a bizarre celebrity Generation Game, as viewers whisper “Ah, J K Rowling,” or “Is that Bowie’s wife, Iman?”

The “new portraits” which sparked the tour include several images of artists at work (Gloria Steinem at a desk, Adele caressing piano keys, Kara Walker in her office, Amy Schumer with script in her lap), actresses, and the already iconic Vanity Fair cover of Caitlyn Jenner. They are undoubtedly skillful images, but the portraits here are often drawn from Leibovitz’s existing glossy commissions, and the result is a narrower focus than the exhibition advertises, and, one senses, Leibovitz might have liked. “I do work for magazines that have a lot of celebrities in them, but I photograph people from all walks of life, and I photograph people because I am interested in what they do,” she told the Telegraph. The exhibition is at its best when her photographs most convincingly communicate that statement.

“Women: New Portraits” (commissioning partner UBS) is at Wapping Hydraulic Power Station until 7 February. Entrance is free.

Anna Leszkiewicz is deputy culture editor of the New Statesman.