Sunday, October 07, 2007

Interview with Paul Roth - Ansel Adams and Annie Leibovitz at The Corcoran

This fall the Corcoran Gallery of Art is hosting two traveling exhibitions showcasing two of the United States’ most iconic photographers: Ansel Adams and Annie Leibovitz. I sat down recently to talk with Paul Roth, curator of photography and media arts at the Corcoran to discuss these two exhibitions and the work of these two photographers.

The Corcoran is exhibiting two different photography shows. Aside from medium, what are similarities and what are the differences between these two shows?
I have been thinking about this a lot because there are real similarities in a way, but the differences are far more compelling. And, I think it is very unusual to do two major shows by two completely different artists working in the same medium.

Why is that unusual?
When a museum does a major show it does so in order to draw all the attention to that one stand-alone show. In this case we are doing two, and we are doing them both because they are [by] major and important populist photographers who are interested in reaching the largest possible audiences for different reasons.

In the case of Annie Leibovitz, her work in a single issue of Vanity Fair or Vogue magazine finds an audience in the millions – a magnitude far larger than any museum could ever hope to get. That has clearly been the audience she has been interested in since she was hired by Rolling Stone when she was still in art school.

In the case of Adams, he saw that photography was a democratic medium. He worked commercially, a lot. He used his own art making activity not just for museum shows, but also to make books that would sell a lot of copies, and also to be printed in magazines that had large distributions. He was really interested in popularizing his own work and getting a big audience for it.

How do they differ?
Of course, Adams was making spiritual works of art that are intended to convey a private experience to a larger audience. Leibovitz is making works that are really about the connection between the audience and the [famous] subject. Adams is about nature. Leibovitz is about culture. Adams is about awe. Leibovitz is about breaking down awe and creating something more personal. It is really interesting how different they are when thinking about what connects them.


How did Adams come to Photography?
When Adams was a teenager he instantly fell in love with photography and the Sierra Nevada on a family trip to the Sierra Nevada. That changed his life in a dramatic way. He essentially had a spiritual awakening at that juncture. He was a sickly and kind of odd child. He was very unsuccessful in school and wasn’t good at socializing. After that trip to the Sierra Nevada everything changed for him. He became intensely social, rejuvenated, and charismatic. His health problems cleared up to a great extent. As a result he was powerfully, spiritually driven by landscape, by nature and by the notion that people could have transformative experiences with nature. That feeling he tried to evoke in certain of his pictures.

He joined the Sierra Club when he was quite young. As the Sierra Club grew and expanded he was there, from his teen years to his early adult years. As a young man he joined the board of directors, and was a key transformational figure in the expansion and growth of the conservation movement because the Sierra Club was really the driving force behind that at the time.

Do you view Adams as a political artist?
I wouldn’t say it quite that blatantly, but it is difficult for me to think of an artist that has a more purposeful, sustained, and successful impact on public policy.

How did he have an effect on public policy?
He made work from an impulse that was a piece of a burgeoning political movement: the conservation movement.

That moment in history his photographs were implicitly a political act. He took that implicit political act and he lobbied for change based on the pictures, which he often would take and show to people whom he was lobbying. He personally lobbied corporations and developers and got them to stop developing pieces of property in California. He was able to keep oil wells off of shorelines. FDR set aside Kings Canyon in the Sierra Nevada as a national park, and Adams was credited by Harold Ickes, the Secretary of the Interior under FDR, for convincing them with his photographs.

He was as key in his way as some of the people who are regarded as the major figures in the conservation movement, like John Muir and David Brower. And he was intensely involved in the Sierra Club’s internal politics and in their strategizing and lobbying efforts in Washington. In time he became one of the best-known members of the Sierra Club, and was one of the few people in the conservation movement that could get a Secretary of the Interior or the President of the United States on the phone. He personally lobbied every president from LBJ to Reagan.
A lot of people don’t believe this, but he used his pictures rather aggressively, to promote the generalized idea of the sanctity of nature by making calendars and greeting cards and coffee table books that dealt with this spiritual side of landscape. He also made several books that were deliberate public appeals toward a certain kind of public attention to saving the landscape: books like This Is the American Earth or The John Muir Trail of the Sierra Nevada.

It is really interesting to think that Ansel Adams, through much of his career, was thought of as being apolitical in a negative way. Colleagues of his, like Dorothea Lange the documentary photographer (whom he was friends with and worked closely with, developing her film for the Farm Security Administration), berated him for being too conservative or for doing commercial jobs or just being insufficiently politicized. But this is an interesting irony. Over the course of his career Adams had as great a political impact if not a greater political impact than Lange.

Do you think because his work was on the greeting cards and the calendars that it became misunderstood?
The popularization of the work, its saleability on calendars, helped establish a market place for other similar works. Now, National Geographic photographers doing landscape in color also have a market place. Therefore, I think Adams work became seen as generic and pretty over time.
On the other hand the political value of his work came from the really wide spread distribution. It’s hard to find an art-market equivalent for reaching tens of millions of people during a Christmas rush in a bookstore, when people buy that calendar, year after year. A lot of people don’t remember this, but many of those calendars were published under the auspices of the Sierra Club.

That is subtlety: to engage someone politically through a stocking-stuffer.
It’s easy to look at those purchases as a Capitalist activity, and I don’t think that’s wrong. It is just important to remember that Adams didn’t go into it without thinking about the politics of it. Adams was very interested in popularizing his ideas about the environment. At the end of the day that’s how you change things. You don’t change things by preaching to the converted. The way you really create policy in your lifetime is working to change policy. Adams did that in every imaginable, possible way. He did it in broad commercial ways and he also did it as directly as sitting across a table with Ronald Reagan, a person who angered him deeply on a personal level.

Both of these shows are traveling exhibits. How have they evolved coming here?
The Adams show is essentially 125 works drawn from the collection of Sandra and Bill Lane. We have added 9 things: a couple from our collection and some are from local collectors. Part of the subtext of the show is collecting. She encouraged me to seek out local collectors and borrow works from them if they fit so that we could call attention to collecting as a practice. In the case of Adams, the Lanes collected directly from him. They bought about 500 works in order to represent all phases of his career. During tours we are going to talk about the idea of collecting and what roll Adams plays in the collection of Photography. Adams is really the key figure in the expansion of the fine art photography marketplace. His photograph, Moon Rise, Hernandez, New Mexico, was one of the first photographs to be aggressively collected by people as an art object to hang on the walls.

There are a few new things added to the Leibovitz show. To great public acclaim, she recently did the official portrait of the queen of England. Two photos of the queen are being added to the show for the first time at the Corcoran. Because of the conjunction of the shows she has also added a photograph she made of Ansel Adams shot in 1976 for a pictorial essay she did for Rolling Stone. I asked her if she would look at her original negatives and see if there was something that might be interesting. Adams is one of her heroes as a photographer. She really liked this idea and made a print of him in his dark room in homage. We found a spot for it that is between the shows; it doesn’t fit into the narrative of her show and it is obviously not an Ansel Adams photograph.



Since Leibovitz has been photographing cultural icons for decades. Has she changed the way we perceive them?
There is no question she has had a major impact on public perception of cultural figures. Not just through her own photography but because of her influence A) on other portrait photographers and the kinds of standards other photographers have to take due to her initial success at Rolling Stone and the reinvention of that style at Vanity Fair and B) her effect on the way that cultural figures are depicted in magazines. This isn’t just photographically but the way that she has influenced the type of attention paid to cultural figures. She is by no means the only person. You could look back to Esquire magazine in the 1960s, which predates Leibovitz at Rolling Stone by several years.

Like the way George Lois was depicting people on the covers of Esquire?
Partly, but I do think of her in some ways intrinsically tied to the advent of new journalism and journalists like Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson. Annie Leibovitz tapped into that with her kind of documentary style. She also evolved a new style of single image color portraiture for the covers of Rolling Stone. In those she used humor and a certain way of evoking the public image of a person while simultaneously poking fun of that public image, which made people [feel] really connected to the subject. For example there is a great picture of Clint Eastwood trussed in rope in the middle of a dusty Western town, but wearing a Lacoste shirt; of Pete Townsend with blood streaming from his fingernails after a concert, poking fun of him giving his all for Rock and Roll; of John Belushi, an on the edge comedian, who took risks with his life, standing on the edge of a highway wearing fatigues and a fedora. Those evocations of the public perception of people are all so powerful that they have an intimacy to them.

The Leibovitz exhibition places images from her private life against how she depicts other individual’s public persona. What does this show reveal about Annie Leibovitz?
The threading together of her personal and professional work throughout the show is essentially chronological and yet, there is no explicit narrative. She has a way of making images of people that feel very intimate and therefore it’s as if you’re there through her; her eyes are your eyes. People like to imagine themselves as being connected to the movies they see and the actors that are in them or the records they listen to and the musicians who record them. I think that people crave that kind of connection.

Over time, people have been told about Annie Leibovitz. Vanity Fair has this feature where they have pictures of their contributors and little blurbs about them. For many years she has been featured in those. Occasionally they do entire stories on her photo shoots. That has evolved a kind of ready-made audience for information about her.

I also think people will be very interested to see that her life is so non-celebrity. Her partner, for many years, was Susan Sontag, and there are many pictures that show their lives together: Susan writing, their vacations together, tourist photos. The rest of them are pretty much family photos, like many of the photos we, ourselves, have in scrap books. That thread of personal imagery is quite different from the celebrity images.

How is that thread different?
There is a relationship that is not entirely comfortable between those images. As an audience you are being asked to make the connections between the people you love and the broader cultural context. Take, for example, a photograph of Jim Carrey that is part of the marketing of a movie he has coming out. What is the connection between that and the picture you might have of you with friends on a beach vacation? Photography plays a key role in connecting us, not just to the celebrities but also to the pictures you see of the people living in poverty throughout the world. You become aware that you really do connect to all of these people.

While I get the idea of being connected to all these people, I still wouldn’t think to put Jim Carrey in a family scrapbook.
An interesting part of this puzzle goes back to the early days of photographic scrapbooks. In the 19th Century the carte de visite – a French term for visiting card – was used in formal society in France, and in the United States. When photography was added to those cards they became collectibles. People might go to a house and present their cards, perhaps to a butler, so the host would know whom he was receiving. The photograph was a gift. The host would keep the photograph and put it in an album.

The carte de visite evolved. People would actually give each other photos of famous people: Abraham Lincoln, Civil War generals, PT Barnum. So, you would have a photo album at home that would have pictures of yourself, your family, the child that died as a baby – they would include post mortem photography – pictures of friends that visited and pictures of famous people. So, when you think of that context, Annie Leibovitz’s exhibition is not unprecedented.


Ansel Adams runs through January 27, 2008. Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer's Life, 1990–2005 runs October 13, 2007 – January 13, 2008, The Corcoran Gallery of Art is located at 500 17th St. NW.


Images:
Ansel Adams, Monolith–The Face of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, 1927
© 2007 The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

Annie Leibovitz, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rob Besserer, Cumberland Island, Georgia, 1990, Photograph © Annie Leibovitz, From Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life, 1990–2005

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