Music for the Eyes
Annie Leibovitz's portraits of American musicians reveal her true oeuvre
Here's Lucinda Williams on a country road outside Austin, the photograph taken during a visit to South by Southwest 2001. The sky is as moody as Williams' famously mercurial temperament, and the determined set of her jaw reflects it. And there's Willie Nelson, posed like the Indian on the old buffalo nickel, the ripples of his hair waving down his back and the crosshatch of lines on his face as fine as those in a pencil sketch. And here's Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen, college chums as well as peers, sitting side by side, the camaraderie between them palpable.
Within the 60-some-odd photographs of hers currently on display at the Austin Museum of Art, Annie Leibovitz's love for music is as apparent as her gift for capturing faces. That is the Connecticut-born photographer's true oeuvre and one of the things that makes her art so remarkable; her portraits are music for the eyes.
That element of her work is to be expected. Leibovitz came into prominence working for Rolling Stone in the early 1970s. Her intimate touch with the camera became one of the magazine's hallmarks, and in 1975 she was commissioned to document the Rolling Stones on tour. Moving to the then newly revived Vanity Fair in the early Eighties, Leibovitz continued the broadening of subjects that she'd started at Rolling Stone while continuing her exploration of the human face in a frame for American Express, the Gap, the World Cup Games, and others. Her work collected awards as well as accolades for the musicians, celebrities, politicians, artists, and athletes who populated her world of prints.
Over and over in the exhibition, Leibovitz's elegant lens captures character in the faces of artists such as Aretha Franklin, Flaco Jimenez, Pete Seeger, Max Roach, and Ralph Stanley. She is just as comfortable photographing more than one subject, as is clear from the way she renders the Dixie Chicks, each with her own personality, or defines in visuals the closeness between Rosanne and Johnny Cash on the porch of the Carter Family home. Hubert Sumlin and Pinetop Perkins radiate eternity in their long years on this earth as she shows them. Sometimes she turns her magic on places as well as faces. The Stax Studios provide a wealth of subjects the same way her view of Highway 61 is a freeze-frame.
Despite Leibovitz's international scope and the fact that "Annie Leibovitz: American Music" was assembled by Experience Music Project, Seattle, the exhibit has a curiously local appeal, in part because some of the faces are so familiar to Austinites, in part because some of them belong to musicians who are (or have been) Austinites. And our own Waterloo Records adds to the enjoyment of the exhibit in Austin with iPod listening stations that allow you to listen to music by the artists photographed by Leibovitz as you contemplate their portraits on the walls.
You can also listen to the photographer herself describe the experience of making these images, courtesy of an audio tour accessible by cell phone or even home phone. (You dial up a preset number and extension for each photograph.) Leibovitz's voice is as deep and grainy as one of her up-close photos, yet her love for her work is evident in her commentary for the shot of Don Walser sitting down to sing at the Broken Spoke, she expresses a wish that she'd gone ahead and photographed him at home. Her description of the session with Dolly Parton says as much about Leibovitz as the arresting photo of Parton.
"Annie Leibovitz: American Music" runs through Aug. 7 at Austin Museum of Art Downtown, 823 Congress. For more information, call 495-9224 or visit www.amoa.org.