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Documenting the diversity of women
IN her introduction to the great American photographer Annie Leibovitz's latest exhibition WOMEN: New Portraits, feminist activist and writer Gloria Steinem laments the fact that "whatever the medium - photographs, paintings, drawings, sculptures - people are almost always portrayed as 'masculine' or 'feminine', different and unequal."
All the more reason to applaud this new collection of photographs, a second movement to what Leibovitz has always considered a work in progress that began in 1999 when she collaborated with writer Susan Sontag on Women, a book of portraits of ordinary women - women in the defence forces, Las Vegas showgirls, women on death row, Virginia Woolf's writing desk, her own mother - that reflected "the unprecedented changes in the consciousness of many women in these last decades".
The WOMEN: New Portraits exhibition is currently on a world tour which began in London and which is taking in major creative capitals like New York, Istanbul, Frankfurt, Zurich, and Hong Kong.
It arrives in Singapore for a stint at the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station from April 29 to May 22.
For sponsor UBS, the collaboration is a natural by-product of Leibovitz's work for the bank's recent global ad campaign which stood out for its emotional focus on, and curiosity about, ordinary people making quotidian financial choices about their lives.
In the midst of the campaign, the discussion turned to the future. "UBS asked me what other projects I was interested in doing, and I said I wanted to explore the possibility of updating the Women project," Leibovitz recalls. "I wanted to catch up with women today. How have their roles changed since 1999? Who's interesting right now?"
"Who better to document women's diversity than Annie?" is the rhetorical comeback from UBS's group chief marketing officer J Johan Jervoe.
Who, indeed? The range of women captured here is extraordinary in its scope and technical skill. Whether Lupita Nyong'o, or Adele or Lena Dunham or Alice Waters, each photograph captures a woman, obviously, but the gender is an afterthought.
There is scant attention to the facial beauty of these women, to the clothes they're wearing, never mind any accentuation of cleavage or curves. If you're looking for that kind of feminine ideal, page David LaChapelle instead.
As Leibovitz - standing in the middle of the cavernous TOLOT/heuristic SHINONOME exhibition space in Tokyo, her intense, inquisitive eyes bright beneath her long mane of ash blonde hair - points out: "It seemed so important not to think of stereotypes and to just photograph what is in front of you. Of course, there are sexual overtones, but that's not the goal. I'm really interested in what the person does, rather than what she looks like. It's why Aung San Suu Kyi is shot against a blank background."
What emerges is a singular humanity of each sitter. The most compelling portraits are those set against the blank background. Here, the sitter's eyes draw the attention. An expression that speaks of experience hard won (Ms Suu Kyi), of undaunted hope (Malala Yousafzai), and even aged fortitude (Queen Elizabeth II).
Even the portrait of Caitlin Jenner - an outtake from the Vanity Fair shoot - is less a photograph of a transgendered Bruce Jenner than it is about steeled courage and a defiant debut of a new person.
Debating quite how Leibovitz manages this remarkable feat of "sexless purity" is pointless. Sometimes, talent is just that, and Leibovitz has been honing her craft for decades, even long before she became famous for her 1981 Rolling Stone cover of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, or her equally celebrated 1991 Vanity Fair cover of a naked, pregnant Demi Moore. Which is not to say that she just shows up with a camera, crew and starts shooting. There is a lot of background research into the sitter, endless discussions.
"If I have an Achilles Heel," Leibovitz explains, "it's that I try to please my clients. With Caitlin Jenner, we really wanted her to be comfortable in her skin. We spent two days just working out what she wanted to look like."
In many ways, this ability to accommodate, even coddle, is a reflection of intense curiosity, a determination to get beneath the skin. Leibovitz is always questioning the whos, the whys and the hows.
And looming large over it all is the presence of Sontag, Leibovitz's partner, who passed away in 2004.
"When we first met, Susan told me I was good, but that I could be better. She was tough," Leibovitz says with a rueful smile.
It is, of course, difficult to imagine Leibovitz being anything but good. More to the point, she is aware of how important this project is. As Steinem stresses: "What we share as humans is far greater than anything that divides us (and no) notion as limited as gender can account for all the truths in this exhibit. In this exhibit, we have the gift of seeing (women) through (Annie's) eyes."
Typically, for WOMEN: New Portraits, Leibovitz has eschewed the traditional display of photographs in regular frames. Instead, the portraits are thrown up on huge TV screens, or as smaller annotated frames tacked onto a wall. The almost chaotic randomness is, perhaps, a sly reference to what Steinem calls "human variety and idiosyncrasy".
And as the exhibition wends its way around the world, Leibovitz will photograph more women and add to the collection. Up next on her agenda are the Williams sisters and Marina Abramovic. The Empress of Japan, she tells a rapt press corps in Tokyo, is on her bucket list.
"This is a really great time for women," Leibovitz adds. "Caitlin Jenner has opened up the idea that maybe there's more than one gender. Maybe it's more complicated that what we think. I'm really excited about Amy Schumer - whether it's guns and birth control or Aids, she's not afraid of any subject."
Neither, it seems, is Leibovitz.
WOMEN: New Portraits will be held at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, Main Hall, 30 Keppel Road, Singapore, 089059, from April 29-May 22, Monday-Sunday, 10am-6pm, Friday late until 8pm. Free entry. For more information check www.ubs.com/annieleibovitz