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Fully Disclosed: Annie Leibovitz's Women 

Wednesday, Apr 6 2016
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One overriding aesthetic has defined Annie Leibovitz's photographic style for almost 50 years: Celebrities who do memorable poses under her direction. A naked John Lennon curled up in a ball against Yoko Ono. Meryl Streep pinched her own cheeks as if they were elastic. And Queen Elizabeth II stood at Buckingham Palace in a dark cloak like she'd just emerged from a magic lamp. Amid all this curtsying and courting of the famous, Leibovitz also captures the lives of the less-fortunate. She's photographed people like Shen Chu, a sewing machine operator in New York who uses her bare hands to stitch other people's clothing; Josephine Barlow, a maid who cleans the rooms of people who've visited Las Vegas to drink and gamble; and Tammie Winfield, a New Yorker and domestic violence victim who may have lost sight in her left eye.

These non-celebrities never make the covers of the slick magazines that pay Leibovitz hefty wages for her work, but Chu, Barlow, Winfield are there in Leibovitz's oeuvre, if you know where to look.

In 1999, the place to look was Leibovitz's book and exhibit called Women, where the seamstress, maid, and batter-ee were spotlighted amid the beautiful and successful "big names" that people now expect with a project that has the Leibovitz imprimatur. In 2016, the place to look — sort of — is San Francisco's Crissy Field, where Leibovitz has updated her "WOMEN" project. More than her original iteration of Women, this one is almost all women who are outwardly successful or otherwise famous.

Sheryl Sandberg, the billionaire Facebook CEO? She's there, smiling and sitting cross-legged in an office. Misty Copeland, the first African-American to become a principle dancer at the American Ballet Theatre? She's tiptoeing in a flowing, camel-colored dress that accentuates her physical attributes. And on it goes. "WOMEN: New Portraits" exalts high-achievers who can be role models not just for women and girls, but for men and boys. These figures of substance represent a new status quo for Leibovitz: In today's America, there are more women than ever who have "made it" and who are outwardly comfortable in their femaleness.

Leibovitz, who is 66, was raised during the 1950s, when women were subjected to harsh cultural restrictions. The '60s ushered in a era of changes — and Leibovitz's career. In 1969, she took a photography workshop at the San Francisco Art Institute, which led to further study there, which led to her work for the fledgling magazine Rolling Stone, which begat her years of chronicling Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Richard Nixon, and other newsworthy figures whose images the periodical wanted to publish. Lennon's curl-up with Ono made the cover of Rolling Stone's January 22, 1981 issue. (Leibowitz took the photo on December 8, 1980 — just hours before a deranged man murdered the former Beatle.)

UBS, the Swiss-based financial services company, is sponsoring "WOMEN," which is touring the world (upcoming: Singapore, Hong Kong, Frankfurt, Istanbul, and Zurich) and is using San Francisco as its only West-Coast stop. Leibovitz helped orchestrate the Bay Area location because of her history with the city — and she wanted the show to be in a venue that's the antithesis of a museum, which is one reason that "WOMEN" is being displayed in a former military building in the Presidio.

War is a subtext of Leibovitz's exhibit image of Malala Yousafzai, the 18-year-old Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize laureate whom the Taliban targeted for death. Now living in Birmingham, England, she's taking classes at a school that Leibovitz visited. When SF Weekly asked Leibovitz about that visit, she said she had only about 30 minutes in the classroom with Malala — not really enough time to arrange a classic Leibovitz image. Dressed in traditional Pakistani clothing, Malala stands in a nondescript class and gives Leibovitz a tepid but nice smile, clasping her hands together.

Hands can be a big clue in an Annie Leibovitz photo. In December 2001, on assignment for Vanity Fair, she gathered every top figure in the Bush administration for a White House photo shoot — just a few months after the 9/11 attacks and the start of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan — and asked George Bush to put his hands in his pockets. Body-language experts caution men to avoid such a gesture while in the company of others, as the gesture makes them look too cavalier, laid-back, or otherwise "off." But Leibovitz asked Bush to do it, and he obliged. In her 2008 book, Annie Leibovitz: At Work, she calls Bush "a cocky guy with a Texas swagger," all but saying she hated the ex-president. A lot of people shared that sentiment — but very few got the chance to undermine him in public, however subtly.

Leibovitz admits that she prefers to photograph people whom she likes, and her images inevitably flatter those with whom she bonds. Leibovitz began the "WOMEN" project — which she calls "never-ending" and "always a work-in-progress" — with Susan Sontag, the writer with whom she had a 16-year intimate relationship. Sontag, who died in 2004, believed that "one of the tasks of photography is to disclose, and shape our sense of, the variety of the world. It is not to present ideals."

But the women in "WOMEN" — which include anthropologist Jane Goodall, actress Lena Dunham, artist Cindy Sherman, and California Attorney General Kamala Harris — do seem like ideals. The least-well-known figures in "WOMEN" are Denise Manong, a pediatric healthcare worker in South Africa, and her daughter Linamandla. After becoming pregnant, Denise Manong tested positive for HIV — and her story of overcoming her health challenges to help others is one that continues to inspire people in South Africa and wherever "WOMEN" goes. The Crissy Field exhibit includes montages of Leibovitz's entire body of work for "WOMEN," along with additional images: Nicole Kidman, Queen Elizabeth II, and lots of other famous people. But as Leibovitz notes in Annie Leibovitz: At Work, celebrities can be just as insecure as anyone else. Unlike others, they have a coterie of handlers to run interference for them. But the famous will often, encouraged by Leibovitz, let their guard down. And when they do — as happened with Bush, and with TV producer Shonda Rhimes, whose hits include Scandal, which is partly set in the White House — Leibovitz will recognize the moment, even if her subjects don't, and record an image that is guaranteed to be seen around the world.

"The first time I photographed [Rhimes], a year ago or so, she didn't want to be photographed on her sets," Leibovitz said. "Then she allowed me to shoot her on her sets, and of course I said, 'Let's go to the Oval Office.' And I was working on setting up a camera, and she sat behind the desk and put her legs up on it, and I couldn't have asked her to do that, but she was doing text-messaging. And I looked at her and said, 'Oh, my God. Just look over here.' And that was the picture."

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Jonathan Curiel

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