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Friday, February 25, 2011

Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer's Life 1990–2005 | Review MCA Sydney

Festival Girl Rating: 9.5/10

I recently went to see the Annie Leibovitz: 'A photographer's life 1990-2005' photography showcase at the MCA in Sydney. The exhibition brings together her professional accomplishments of celebrity portraits and personal photographs of her family and close friends. In the show’s introductory wall text, Ms. Leibovitz is quoted as saying: "I don’t have two lives. This is one life and the personal pictures and the assignment are all a part of it." This is a really intriguing exhibition that marries together the professional Annie with and the vulnerable, personal Annie; it really showed me a more intimate side of the photographer that many of her previous exhibitions have rarely focused on. 

I have always been a fan of Leibovitz's style producing iconic, powerful, highly stylised images depicting celebrities, sports stars and people of power and admiration. This exhibition has shown another side of the photographer and by displaying images of her close friends and family, and the experiences of life, death, illness, age and time, she has allowed the audience to connect with her personally. Although most of the personal images do not have the iconic Leibovitz quality we have come to know and love, the images really represent why and where she is today. 

Top 7 Highlights: 

Regarding her ‘produced’ portraits, there is something in the way Leibovitz positions her subjects; off-centre figures, cut-off backgrounds and candid - behinds the scenes seems to portray more than what is being portrayed. The stark quality is really admirable in Leibovitz’s work and works as the veneration of glamorized celebrities are captured in a portrait and allowing an audience to easily connect with the famous subject, but then start to see them more as just people, rather than the iconic celebrities we see them as. 

I found the experience of the personal images very moving and found myself nearly to tears when looking at some of her raw images with her older parents and the special connection with her friend Susan who passed away from cancer in 2004. Whilst walking around, I felt like I just walked into the house of someone who keeps the memories of loved ones alive by putting them up on the walls for all to see. The focus on her personal experience and story really adds an interesting aspect to the exhibition and feels more like an installation art work. 

Some of my favs include the following:

Leigh Bowery

I really have a fascination for costume, performance, textures and images – hence why this is one of my favourite of the series. The postmodern elements of this image almost overwhelm the entire subject; from the outer layer of the stains from the photo developing, to the border around the proof, to the light reflectors, to the lighting equipment and backdrop, and in the centre, under all the layers, there is the delicate centre of Bowery dressed in a sexualized, PVC leather suit from head to toe. The image is subversive and understated, definitely one of my favourites. 

There is something so mesmerizing about the way Annie works; her thought process, her influence, her style - it really is all her own. Many of her portraits show the subject as a sculpture and moulding them to make a representation of themselves. Her images, capture a moment in time, but also manage to represent a pause in breath or life of her subjects. The images are thought provoking and very touching and really come off the walls and inhabit the space.

Iggy Pop

Looking much like a leathery, over tanned , skinny over 50’s ladies you see walking with their little dog and micro bikini on Bondi beach; Iggy seems to have the recipe for immortality. He just keeps on getting older and the girls stay the same age. Iggy is such a cool, rock star, yet this stark image contrasts his ageing fragility with his rock star lifestyle.

I love the rawness in most of her images; most of which are monochromatic proofs that have been blown up and put up for display. Inspired by the innovations of Richard Avedon postmodern photography set up, Leibovitz intentionally and purposely speaks the subtext through content of the image and the physical presentation, including displaying images with background scenery, lack of cropping, and of course developing stains on prints. These portraits emphasize aspects of installation art, enticing the audience to interact with the art and space.

Bloody Bicycle, Sarajevo (fallen bicycle of teenage boy just killed by a sniper)

A truly poignant and breath taking image in person. Unlike many of the portraits Leibovitz is known for, this really highlights the absence of the person and allows the audience to take a second to reflect on the horror, imagine the child who injured and killed – truly heartbreaking and very moving.

The White Stripes 

Leibovitz decides to play with the Red and White theme that the band is synonymous with to produce a playful, vibrant Vegas meets Brooklyn feel where man and woman are playing in an urban concrete jungle. Even the tight lipped expressions on their face seem to represent the mysteriousness the band portrait – Who are they, are they an item or siblings? who knows, it’s all a (circus) act?


I’m not sure if this is the exact home she grew up in, but the old home insinuates her humble beginnings. Dressed in modest clothes with no brands, jewellery, styled hair or make up, the Oprah we all recognize is almost unrecognizable. From humble beginnings to most powerful woman in America – this is very inspiring image.

Scarlett Johansen

Scarlett is an iconic Hollywood beauty, I love the juxtaposition between her glamorous appearance, leopard coat and lush couch and the ‘cheap’ background and sitting relaxed in her underwear. BTW, lovin’ her shoes and top in this portrait.


As the MCA are currently upgrading their facilities means there were using portable air conditioning units across the space. With all the people buzzing around, it made it really hot - eek.

What was really intriguing about this event was the queue that was forming outside the MCA doors to see the exhibition. I thought to myself, am I in the right line? Is a photography exhibition really having this much interest and intrigue? Fantastic! 

What was even more interesting is that, when I entered the space, there was 50 - 100 people all crammed in this space trying to engage with the works. This made it increasingly difficult to try and take in a work to the extent that I would have liked. This experience made it feel like I was being swept up in a cattle call, as bodies were pushing and shoving me through the space, much like an experience navigating through IKEA. Now, I'm not trying to dictate what the right amount of time is needed to take in an image, but surely it can’t be a mere 5-10 seconds? I mean, this isn’t a passing bus billboard; it’s a piece of Art. Refreshingly, I saw so many walk up close, try to touching the canvases to feel the texture (naughty) and see the images in detail - this really made me smile. This is the kind of engagement most artists relish to have from their viewers.

By popular demand, the event has been extended for an extra month. I went around lunch time and turns out there was a guided tour starting around 1pm, but I'm not sure if it is like that everyday.

Annie Leibovitz: 
A Photographer's Life 1990-2005 
19 November 2010 - 26 April 2011 
MCA Sydney 
140 George Street 
The Rocks 
Sydney, Australia


1 comment:

  1. I saw this exhibition as well, and I agree about the image of the bicycle, very powerful.


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