By STEVE HOPSON Contributing Editor
AUSTIN, Texas (Fotophile.com) — The death of Richard Avedon last year made Annie Leibovitz, arguably, America’s most famous living photographer. Best remembered for her 13 years of work for Rolling Stone, Leibovitz has spent more than the last two decades photographing celebrities for Vanity Fair. Leibovitz’s signature portrait style is marked by a collaboration between the photographer and the subject to visibly reveal an aspect of the subject’s personality. Through the publication of her photo books, “Women” and “Olympic Portraits,” and her exhibits at the National Portrait Gallery and other museums, Leibovitz has established her reputation as an artist.
The Austin Museum of Art exhibit, “American Music” — based on Leibovitz’s book of the same name — takes the photographer full circle back to her early work with musicians while combining her eye for revealing the personality of celebrities with her skills as an artist. Leibovitz acknowledges the cyclical nature of the exhibit’s topic by writing of her “desire to return to my original subject, look at it with a mature eye and bring my experience to make it a real American Tapestry.” The exhibit does mark a maturity of vision, displaying her advanced portraiture skills. Only one photo, of the White Stripes costumed as circus performers doing a knife-throwing act, harkens back to her elaborately staged Rolling Stone covers. Curiously, the museum curators selected this photo as the exhibit’s lobby centerpiece.
The 68 large-scale photos in the exhibit were all completed between 1999 and 2003. Organized thematically by musical genre, the show explores the major American musical forms: blues, country, rock and rap. Rockers Bruce Springsteen and Bonnie Raitt share a wall, as do blues favorites R.L. Burnside, B.B. King and Pinetop Perkins. The display also matches rappers P. Diddy, Missy Elliott and Mary J. Blige together, while Ralph Stanley, Norah Jones, Beck and Pete Seeger each stand individually on their own walls. Speaking about another solo iconic figure and photograph, Iggy Pop, Leibovitz comments on the cell-phone accessible audio accompaniment, that his body is a road map to rock and roll. Leibovitz displays the roadmap with two photos of Iggy as a shirtless body, scars and all.
As expected of a celebrated master of photography, the photographs and prints on display are exquisite. In the photo, “North Mississippi All Stars,” the clarity of the 3-by-4 foot C-print reveals the 5 o’clock beard stubble and blemishes on the guitarist’s face. Leibovitz’s lighting also allows the viewer to look into the sound holes of the acoustic guitar to see the Gibson factory serial number. In another large print, the band, The Roots, stands on a street corner in Philadelphia. Leibovitz’s camera captures all the faces in the crowd, the detail in the T-shirts of the musicians and the facades of the buildings. Unfortunately marring the beauty of some of the prints, framing malfunctions cause some artworks to appear visibly wrinkled behind their mattes.
Although the display focuses on creators of music, Leibovitz does not overlook the role of musical places. The landscape of the music is seen in Leibovitz’s photos of “Preservation Hall, New Orleans,” “Po’ Monkey’s Lounge in Merigold, Mississippi” and “Highway 61.” About Preservation Hall, Leibovitz stated that the hall looked better without the band in the photo. Leibovitz’s photo of Highway 61, made famous in Bob Dylan’s verse, was shot through the windshield of a car with a radio antenna clearly visible in one side of the frame.
In a nod toward Austin, the city that officially refers to itself as, “The Live Music Capital of the World,” a focus of the exhibit is on musicians associated with the town: Willie Nelson, Robert Earl Keen, Lyle Lovett, the Dixie Chicks and ‘Pavarotti of the Plains,’ local yodeler Don Walser. Although Leibovitz traveled to Nashville to photograph Lucinda Williams at her home there, the portrait in the show was shot in Austin during the South by Southwest Music Festival.
American Music shows America’s leading portrait artist in her prime and working on her favorite subject.