The evening was highlighted by a conversation before a near capacity crowd (nearly 2500) in Mershon auditorium with Annie Leibovitz herself and none other than Rolling Stone founder and editor Jann S. Wenner, Annie’s former boss. To top things off, today happens to be the forty-fifth anniversary of the very first edition of Rolling Stone magazine. Wenner hired Annie as a photographer early in the magazine’s history. Until then it had been mainly a print publication.
The evening was not about just the show. Annie Leibovitz is the latest of fifteen recipients of the Wexner Prize awarded to living artists of monumental stature. Previous recipients have included John Cage, Merce Cunningham (whose dance company we saw at the same auditorium not long after he died), Martin Scorsese, Robert Rauschenberg, and Spike Lee, to name only those most familiar to me. Suzy noticed that remarkably, Annie Leibovitz is the first woman to make the roster.
Some non-central Ohioans (and a lot of other people) may not know that the Wexner of the arts center and of the prize is Leslie Wexner, founder and chairman of Limited Brands (parent of Victoria’s Secret, Bath & Body Works, et al.), one of Ohio’s billionaires, and a commendably generous alumnus and donor to The Ohio State University, who regularly squeezes out gifts $100 million at a time. Well I say good for him. Business in fancy ladies’ underpants must be good.
The exhibit has three components. The primary part is Leibovitz’s Master Set, the 159 images from her last forty years of work that she herself picked out and assembled as being her best and most representative work.
And they are astounding. You have seen many of them, as much of Leibovitz’s work has become a part of national and world culture, seen and admired by millions.
The most famous of them all is the one she took of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, John naked (discreetly), the two of them kissing on the floor in their apartment, taken on December 8, 1980, the day that turned out to be by incredible coincidence, the last day of his life. Coming face to face with that photo blown up to museum size was like what encountering the Mona Lisa in person must be like. (Actually, I’ve never seen the Mona Lisa in person, but I have seen famous paintings by Degas, Renoir, and Rembrandt at touching distance.)
They put that photo on the cover of Rolling Stone immediately, with only the magazine’s title banner and no other print matter whatever. It’s been called the best magazine cover of the last fifty years. I haven’t seen all magazine covers in fifty years, but I wouldn’t argue the point. Could there possibly be a more poignantly revealing portrait of a man everyone in the world wanted to know all they could about, revealing his feelings so intimately on the very last day of his life? Annie Leibovitz can take credit for taking the picture, but that it exists at all is a miracle.
In addition to some great rock and roll photos, especially of the Rolling Stones, there are images of numerous celebrities. There is the famous Demi Moore pregnant-and-almost-busting-wide-open picture that was on the cover of Vanity Fair, was second only to the Lennons’ picture in popularity. Also one of Meryl Streep in heavy almost clown-like make-up stretching parts of her face, symbolic of her great versatility. And there is one of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon that defies description, likely a reprise of their roles in Some Like It Hot. All I can do is give you the link and say get a load of this. (I’d never seen it, and it stopped me in my tracks. I’m still laughing.)
And there were also the picture of the helicopter carrying Richard Nixon from the White House after his resignation (what a historical assignment for a photojournalist to have!), astounding matching portraits of Bill and Hilary Clinton (Hilary’s is one of the great photos in the exhibit in my opinion) and also of Barack and Michelle Obama, and also one of Queen Elizabeth II taken not long after her Jubilee celebration. Annie said that Buckingham Palace called her to come over and photograph the Queen, that she was able to request what she should wear, and at the end of twenty-five minutes she actually had the nerve to ask her if she’d remove her crown — and she did — and got the best picture of all.
The second part of the exhibit is a collection called Pilgrimage, a personal project where none of the pictures are of people, but are of items associated with well-known people who have interested and inspired Annie Leibovitz: Emily Dickinson, Abraham Lincoln, Martha Graham, Annie Oakley, Lewis and Clark, Elvis Presley, and others.
Finally, in the lobby is a collection of smaller prints of people who have been former Wexner Prize recipients or who have performed or had showings at the Wex, just a few of the thousands of people Annie Leibovitz has photographed on assignment.
As for the hour and forty-five minute conversation between Annie Leibovitz and Jann Wenner — it was valuable mainly for the sake of being able to say we saw these two illustrious people sitting in front of us in person. Surprisingly, neither one is a particularly fluent speaker, both speak with way too many regressions and ummms and likes and you knows. Although they presented a slide show, they skipped around a lot and didn’t appear to have much of an agenda planned. There were, however, some interesting anecdotes. I’m sure everyone was interested in knowing about the last John Lennon photo session, and about photographing the Queen.
After that story, Jann Wenner declared, “See who you have before you!” which provoked a standing ovation, as the two of them waved farewell.