Annie Leibovitz Writes History with WOMEN: New Portraits

Leigh Donlan reported from the Presidio:

San Francisco will be the only West Coast host in the global tour of Annie Leibovitz’s WOMEN: New Portraits, opening March 25 at 649 Old Mason Street in the Presidio’s Crissy Field. It is free to the public.

Annie Leibovitz

Annie Leibovitz

The project – commissioned by global financier UBS – is a continuation of the 1999 series that Leibovitz began with her late partner, writer and activist Susan Sontag. 

Gloria Steinem collaborated with Leibovitz on this edition of the project. Steinem told Tuesday’s press, “I think it’s perfect that this is the first exhibit of Annie’s work in this country, because San Francisco was the center for art and revolution, and the beginning of the feminist art movement, as a reaction to the abstract surrealism that didn’t fit with women. This really changed the global artistic landscape. It’s a great symbol, Annie’s show premiering here.”

The photographer with Gloria Steinem at the press preview for WOMEN: New Portraits

The photographer with Gloria Steinem at the press preview for WOMEN: New Portraits

In an essay from the first series’ book, which featured photos of women in politics (Hillary Clinton), artists (Patti Smith) and non-celebrities like coal miners, Sontag wrote: “This is what women are now, as different, as varied, as heroic, as forlorn, as conventional, as unconventional as this.” As they still are in this 21st century exhibition, which includes portraits of Aung San Suu Kyi, Queen Elizabeth, Jane Goodall, Misty Copeland and Ms. Steinem.

Yet, compared to the 1999 images, these new portraits feel empowered. Women’s voices have strengthened over the last 15 years, and it shows. Earlier images reflected their time – the 90’s – the Bush administration, war and generally low morale. The women appeared more guarded and uncertain, arms crossed and stern faces. Now, that heaviness seems to have lifted from their eyes and their bodies open, like the Serena Williams shot in which she is  lunging like a warrior, stripped of glamour and pretense.

In opening remarks, Leibovitz commented on Steinem’s influence: “Gloria said there’s not enough imagery of women in art that shows us as whole human beings. Men have always portrayed us, and women need to be visualized… by women.” This is evidenced by all major American museums like MoMa and LACMA where less than 20% of solo exhibitions are by women, yet 85% of the nudes are female. Figures are worse in Europe. Of all the solo exhibitions at the Centre Pompidou since 2007, only 16% went to women. In 1980 it was 1.1% in 1990 it was 0.4%, and in 2000 it was 0.2%.

Misty Copeland, New York City, 2015 © Annie  Leibovitz

Misty Copeland, by Annie Leibovitz

The reality is no different in the dance world, where Leibovitz subject Misty Copeland is just one of the more visible activists for female and minority empowerment. All institutionalized art forms defer to white men, most of them dead. 

Change is slow, but it’s in motion. That a conservative global institution like UBS is backing this exhibit demonstrates this. Their philanthropic programs provide worldwide support to women’s causes, and it’s not surprising that their philanthropic foundation is headed by a woman (Phyllis Costanza).

Leibovitz selected galleries and locations off the beaten track to exhibit her latest work, and The Presidio’s Crissy Field is an industrial, informal setting that attracts a wide range of visitors . Once an Air Force base, The Presidio’s recreational buildings, with picturesque views of the Golden Gate Bridge, now serve as exhibition and performance space, something that Steinem noted as a revolutionary event in itself – from a space that supports war to a space that supports art.

“Does anyone here remember Womanhouse?” Steinem asks us, referring to the feminist art installation and performance space of the early seventies. Womanhouse encouraged women artists to use consciousness-raising techniques to generate content for exhibition, and employed a circular teaching method that rejected traditional hierarchies of authority. 

Steinem compares the exhibition to a circle: “You know we’ve been sitting around campfires for 100,000 years, telling our stories. This is another campfire.” 

The subjects of Liebovitz’s photos are diverse and include many women of outstanding tenacity and achievement. Two of my favorites were primatologist Jane Goodall, looking wise and serene in a simple black and white headshot; and Pakistani Malala Yousafzai, photographed in a children’s classroom. At 15 years old, Malala was shot by the Taliban for advocating education rights for girls. She survived the assassination attempt and, in 2014, received the Nobel Peace Prize for her continued advocacy.

Of the image, Leibovitz remarked, “Look at Malala. This woman was shot to be killed, yet she comes out of that experience… like Gandhi or the Dalai Lama. She has an inner strength and sense of herself.” 

Leibovitz’s documentation of these stories is an act of preservation in both art and history. Each photo presents its own complex and individual story, “like a novel,” Steinem says.



WOMEN: New Portraits by Annie Leibovitz, commissioned by UBS

Open March 25 – April 17, 2016

Monday – Sunday, 10am – 6pm, Friday late until 8pm.

Free admission.


The Presidio’s Crissy Field

649 Old Mason Street

San Francisco, 94129

Advance booking online recommended




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