Annie Leibovitz Updates Her Most Iconic Work “Women”

  • Field Notes

These were not the circumstances Annie Leibovitz had hoped for.

The homecoming of her new photography exhibition “Women: New Portraits” to New York City, the ninth stop on its world tour, was meant to coincide with the country electing our first female president. And yet the show, which celebrates iconic women and their accomplishments over the past decade, exudes an unexpected poignancy.

“This is not the way we imagined this week would turn out,” Leibovitz says in her commanding voice, “but mark my words, this is still a celebration. It’s a somber, sobering, emotional celebration. There is much to talk about.”

_mg_0732Annie Leibovitz introduces her new exhibition “Women: New Portraits”

The show is in the former Bayview Correctional Facility, a disreputable women’s prison in Chelsea, Manhattan. The facility was closed in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy flooded the area, and after decades of reports of inmate abuse by staff members – the highest rate in the country. The site is now being developed into “The Women’s Building,” a future home to organizations and groups supporting women’s issues, slated to open in 2020. Before the building is gutted and refurbished for its new more hopeful life, Leibovitz, along with Gloria Steinem secured the historical and symbolic site for the New York City leg of this show.

“Welcome to a place of freedom, that was formerly one of menace and difficulty and discrimination,” Steinem says. “Annie Leibovitz’s photos of these iconic women in this space are, together, an enormous symbol of what women can do when they are free. And I think there is nothing we need more than this right now.”

_mg_0864Gloria Steinem at the preview of Annie Leibovitz’s “Women: New Portraits” in the former Bayview Correctional Facility

“Women: New Portraits,” commissioned by UBS, is an update to Leibovitz’s series “Women” which she started with Susan Sontag in 1999. Initially overwhelmed by the idea of undertaking such a broad subject – “I thought it was like going out and trying to capture the ocean,” Leiboviz says – the series has become an iconic collection of pictures showing how women look now, and what roles they play in society, the workplace, and at home. Each portrait is a novel, as Steinem puts it, a sliver of a moment in that woman’s life and work.

09annie-web-master675Misty Copeland, New York City, 2015 (c) Annie Leibovitz from WOMEN: New Portraits

_mg_0898Steinem says the most important tool a woman has in the fight for equality is her instinct, and that trusting it is the most powerful act

The portrait of Hillary Clinton is, of course, an attention grabber. In it, she sits proudly with her profile set off against the mahogany walls of the office she’s in. On the desk in front of her, Leibovitz points out, is a tile that says “Never Never Never Give Up.”

“I’m not trying to showcase Hillary Clinton, but it’s the first time I’ve folded her into this ocean of women who mean something to us today.”
-Annie Leibovitz

_mg_0794Annie Leibovitz discusses her portrait of Hillary Clinton

_mg_0934The “pop-up installation” as Leibovitz called it, is held in the gymnasium at the former Bayview Correctional Facility in Chelsea, Manhattan

Part of the opening program included different public discussions with Leibovitz and Steinem in an effort to dig into the images and roles of women in today’s world (which inevitably lead back to the recent election results). At Steinem’s “talking circle” the ancient and intimate form of storytelling she uses in women’s forums across the country, Leibovitz’s portraits hang as a backdrop to questions and musings on how we move forward with a president-elect who threatens much of the work for female equality that’s been done over the past few decades, Steinem herself at the helm.

“I think what has been revealed to us is a truth that we must now go with,” she says. “Never again will anyone be able to say we’re living in a post-racism, post-feminism world. We understand that there is something like one-third of the country that is still locked into these old gender and racial hierarchies.”

Leibovitz’s new portraits include many recognizable faces, and also lots that aren’t. Steinem encouraged Leibovitz to include in this update, women who have been fighting outside of the limelight for important issues around the world. Andrea Medina Rosas, a women’s rights lawyer in Mexico, is photographed near the US-Mexico border as the sun comes up, and Denise Manong, a pediatric AIDS health-care worker, is pictured hugging her daughter Linamandla. Leibovitz tells the room to read the biographies of the women she’s photographed.

“Know who you’re looking at. You might know some of them, but read their bios. It adds power to know their stories.”
-Annie Leibovitz

Steinem closes the preview with her image of feminism and where we’re at today in the fight for women’s equality.

“Domestic violence is the paradigm of all violence in the world,” she says, “and what we know is that the moment just before a woman escapes a violent household, and the time just after she escapes, is when she is in the most danger. That is the time when she is most likely to be beaten or murdered. I think we’re similarly at a time of maximum danger in this country and we need to look after each other. We need to see the true diversity of human beings male and female. But it’s also true that just as we wouldn’t tell anyone to go back into a violent household we will not tell each other to go back. And just as it’s a time of danger, maybe we are about to be free.”

_mg_0926Gloria Steinem and Annie Leibovitz

“Women: New Portraits” by Annie Leibovitz is on view at The Former Bayview Correctional Facility, at the corner of West 20th Street and 11th Avenue, from November 18th to December 11th, 2016. Without the generous support of UBS, the 10-city tour, programming and free admission wouldn’t be possible.

Words by Erin Spens
Photographs by Maggie Shannon (unless otherwise noted)

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