Lucinda Williams next to a car (wheels on a gravel road, no doubt). Missy Elliott in furs and jewels, bling-bling turned up to 10. Ryan Adams in a hotel room, looking like he just got up. Brian Wilson by the pool, good vibrations gone. They're indelible images from Annie Leibovitz, chronicler of American music — a photographer who, like some of her subjects, hit the road to find that music. An exhibition and book of her new work reveal what a long, not-so-strange trip it's been. —
Leibovitz brings the painterly eye she used as Rolling Stone's chief photographer to "American Music," her latest collection of photography, premiering at the Experience Music Project, the interactive music museum in Seattle. The exhibition, which opens at EMP on Saturday, comprises more than 60 photographs mostly spanning the four years she spent crisscrossing the United States. The show heads to London next year, and returns to the United States next summer, for an engagement at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
In the show — and the companion book, "American Music" (just out from Random House) — Leibovitz returns not so much to her roots as a photographer as to the roots of the American sound.
And it's not all rock and roll, either. Leibovitz offers a heartfelt, witty, elegiac journey through the America that's yielded players of blues, Tex-Mex, gospel, Western swing, R&B, zydeco, jazz and hiphop — unknowns and near-knowns juxtaposed with legends known and loved. The former chief photographer for the bible of rock has amassed a survey of images informed by music beyond rock, field dispatches from a spy in the hothouse of America's musical soul.
'It's been a long road'
Leibovitz — strikingly tall, energetic, generous and jet-lagged — was in the final stages Thursday of preparing the exhibition of her show, fielding requests from her assistants and fighting the exhaustion that comes from preparing a major photography show 3,000 miles from New York, where she lives. "I was literally up at 4 o'clock," she said, pinching her eyes shut. "My daughter's on East Coast time — "
She's interrupted by co-workers, though sometimes she does this to herself, her energy so relentless that she starts down one conversational track, then verbally U-turns in another direction.
It's not unlike the twists and turns around America she took — from the Mississippi Delta to Los Angeles, from rural Texas to the outskirts of Detroit — in order to bring "American Music" to life.
"It's been a long road, this book," Leibovitz said.
Observers will be struck by not just the specific images in the EMP show, but also by the approach Leibovitz employs to explore the open-ended theme of "American music." The exhibition and the coffee-table format book accompanying it don't dwell much on the lives of those gold-plated names we associate with stardom. Sure, Bruce Springsteen's here, with Eminem and Bob Dylan, Mary J. Blige and Jon Bon Jovi.
But the heart of this collection is in the faces and names we might not readily associate with American music — faces and names we might not even recognize at all. "There are a lot of people in this book that are well known in their genre, for what they've done, but they're not household names," she said.
Pinetop Perkins and Hubert Sumlin, blues veterans from the 50s, are seen playing in an empty New Orleans bar. Flaco Jimenez plays the accordion at home in San Antonio. Jazz musician-composer Olu Dara and the rapper Nas — father and son — chill on the stoop of a New York City brownstone.
Celebrities as ordinary people
One intriguing dimension of both exhibition and book is the way Leibovitz has visualized the theme of American music, and emphasized the process of music-making, rather than the event. There are none of the fame-smitten, concert-style images often connected with stars and celebrity. In keeping with the style of much of her past work, Leibovitz catches these stars in the act of being regular, grocery-buying, back-porch, shoes-off people as far from the demands of stardom as they can get.
June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash sit together, unadorned, in a quietly compelling portrait from 2001 ...
In another image from the same year, a seemingly bemused Johnny Cash sits outside playing guitar with daughter Rosanne ...
Neil Young and wife Pegi share a quiet moment in the station wagon, driving near their northern California home ... Lou Reed and companion Laurie Anderson sit on the boardwalk at Coney Island, looking for all the world like everyday tourists rather than recording artists with legions of fans.
We see other musicians making music privately, revealing songwriting as the solitary, almost monastic process that it is. Patti Smith lost in thought, sits and strums in a room of her home outside Detroit, a few years after the death of her husband, MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith ...
A bespectacled Norah Jones sits contemplating at the piano ... Bonnie Raitt warms up backstage in a dressing room earlier this year at New York's Bottom Line ... Tony Bennett and Ralph Sharon work out a number between sets in San Francisco. In these shots and others, Leibovitz's empathy with those who wrestle with the creative process becomes clear.
Her images veer from the whimsical to the documentary. Consider the White Stripes, cast in a colorful, Felliniesque circus motif that seems to craftily play on their divorced status — Jack White as knife thrower; ex-wife Meg White as the spreadeagled target on a bull's eye. Contrast that with the quiet power of Willie Nelson in profile, ready for a place on Mount Rushmore, his face a magnificent black-and-white portrait of time's passage, every line and crease stark as a woodcut.
There's no escaping the deep strain of the mortal that runs through many of the images. In the four years Leibovitz spent traveling in search of the subjects that comprise the exhibition, some of those subjects have passed on: both the elder Cashes; blues legend John Lee Hooker; black-music anthologist Othar Turner; blues-jazz pianist Abie "Boogaloo" Ames; Run-D.M.C.'s Jam Master Jay.
It's a renewed contact with mortality, a finality that Leibovitz came to understand in her years as Rolling Stone's chief photographer (1970-1983). Ten years into that job, her reputation preceding her handsomely, she became famous all over again — in the worst way.
It was Dec. 8, 1980. Leibovitz had photographed John Lennon for Rolling Stone that afternoon at the Manhattan apartment he shared with Yoko Ono and their son, Sean. Hours later, Lennon was shot to death outside by a crazed fan. In an instant, the work of a routine photo assignment had become the visual valedictory of one of popular music's transcendent voices.
One Leibovitz photo, of Lennon curled around Ono, was on the cover of Rolling Stone. It's an image that endures in the popular imagination today.
"It was devastating to me, it was shocking ... photographed him that day, and he was killed that night," she said. "I came out of it thinking that I had to renew my scruples about my dedication to my work, I had to be truer than I ever was before.
"You knew it was the end of an era, end of a time. Things changed. We had to grow up."
Leibovitz attributes her passion for photography to numerous influences. "I love [Diane] Arbus; I wish I had that kind of edge. Helmut Newton, I think, is extraordinary. When I started out, I was interested in primarily in Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson. But when I became interested in portraiture, I was into Richard Avedon and Irving Penn ... That's how you learn. You look at other work and some of it is incorporated in your own."
Cartier-Bresson, the celebrated French photographer, coined the phrase "the decisive moment," to explain the instant when a photographer attains, as he defined it, ‘the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression."
The studied moment
It's a concept easier to grasp in the context of concert pictures — catching Springsteen at the height of an onstage leap, for instance — but more elusive when you think of the quieter, more introspective demands of portraiture.
By contrast, Leibovitz feels that in portrait work, what counts is "the studied moment."
"It depends on what the other person is prepared, psychologically and emotionally, to give to you," she said. "And everyone deals with it in a different way."
It's also a moment she says she witnesses in the interplay with her subjects, and between her subjects. "I'm very interested in relationships — they sometimes create portraits of the people you're after in the long run," she said.
"Like John and Yoko: that's a portrait of both of them. It's interesting to step back and not have to be the person that the subject is directing himself to. It becomes more of a triangle. It feels safer for me; I get to observe a relationship and the relationship holds the picture together.
Vol. 1 in a series?
What's next? "More of the same," she said laughing, getting ready for the next interview. "I'm going to do an edit of my work from the '70s, and then I want to do a book of photographs of ... whatever moves me."
For Leibovitz, it never ends. The new project celebrating the unruly stew of American music is part of a work in progress.
"It's a very personal point of view. I'm interested in history, I'm interested in America, I'm interested in landscape, I'm interested in Elvis Presley. All this eclectic stuff is thrown together with music that I grew up on and love."
"That's actually the most wonderful part of doing a book like this," she said. "American music is so big — where do you begin and end? You need three or four more books. I like to call this volume one."