The museum already had a worthy collection of photography dating back almost to the beginning of the medium.
But the curator wanted more, wanted something from the name but not necessarily the stuff that made the photographer famous.
So Charlie Stainback, assistant director of the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, caught a flight to New York and spent the better part of a day combing through thousands of digital images in the studio archive of Annie Leibovitz.
He could have easily selected from the high-wattage side of the catalogue something pop culturally powerful like a pregnant and naked Demi Moore or Whoopi Goldberg in a milk bath or Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold mud-wrestling but he was looking for something quieter. He wanted photos that revealed as much about Leibovitz as the subjects on the other side of the lens.
It was a back and forth process of making the photo selections. But I didnt want the obvious stuff, he says. I wanted photos that were devoid of the theatrics, just a photographer and her subject and what the camera can do.
The contemplation and collaboration resulted in Norton acquiring a collection of 39 works by Leibovitz, 63, that are on display through June 9.
The final selection is a mixture of some well-known and lesser-known works from the 1970s to the present. Both artist and curator felt it was important to select a grouping that emphasized the scope of her portraiture. There are some that fall squarely in the celebrity iconic category: Tom Cruise gazing over his shoulder; Brad Pitt lounging on a bed; Leonardo DiCaprio clutching a swan arched around his neck possible, Leibovitz says, because of his beautiful love of animals. Others, few may recognize such as Agnes Martin, one of Leibovitzs favorite artists. Leibovitz also gave the museum two additional photos of David Byrne and Andy Warhol.
Last week, Leibovitz made the trip to Florida to welcome her photos into the Nortons permanent collection and offer a sort of show-and-tell. Dressed in all black, always black, the photographer walked into the space with the deep gray walls, and surveyed her own body of work. They represented more than four decades of work, captured moments that turned magazine covers into cultural statements. Others proved equally revealing in their stark minimalism.
First, she scanned the room with a crowd of photographers and reporters in tow then she walked over to the very beginning.
The photo, displayed in a corner near the entrance of the installation, shows a group of American soldiers standing with a petite woman. Leibovitz explained that she lived off garbage near Clark Air Base in the Philippines, where her father was stationed during the Vietnam War. Leibovitz was 18 at the time.
I lined them up like a family picture, she says. This was before I thought of myself as a photographer.
Stainback says the Norton collection is pure. Leibovitz says its sophisticated and surprising.
Annie Leibovitz is one of the most important portrait photographers of our time and as such deserves a prominent place in our encyclopedic permanent collection, said Stainback, who curated the installation as one of his last before leaving the museum in March for a college museum director post. The photographs weve chosen demonstrate the quiet power of the photograph and the vital connection between the artist and the subject the essential element of all great portraits.
Leibovitz has been documenting American popular culture since the early 1970s, when her work first appeared in Rolling Stone. For nearly three decades, she anchored her photographs in the pedigreed pages of Vanity Fair and Vogue. Hers was a career built upon an uncanny ability to unmask her subjects and, to be sure, she has benefitted from our insatiable worship of celebrities.
Her most famous shot, of course, remains the 1980 Rolling Stone cover featuring a naked John Lennon entangled with Yoko Ono. He was shot and killed several hours later.
Her work made her as rich and famous as many of her subjects. But in 2009, facing a mountain of debt caused in part by Manhattan home renovations that became costly and litigious, Leibovitz borrowed $15.5 million against her photo rights and real estate. She later worked out a deal to buy back control of her images and began working with a private equity firm to sort out her financial affairs.
Two years later, she has emerged from the mess mostly whole and newly refocused on her art, mounting an installation at the Smithsonian based on her own field trips through history. Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage, now a traveling show, differs from other projects in that she takes photos of landscapes, objects and faceless people.
At the Norton, Leibovitz breezes through other photos that lines the walls, in no particular order: the Rev. Al Sharpton, before he lost weight and went natural, seated under a hair dryer getting his hair primped at the PrimaDonna Beauty Care Center in Brooklyn; Sean Combs, in a fur-collared coat, baby boy in one hand, other hand in pocket, older son smiling impishly in the car; photos of a nondescript woman who transforms into a dazzling Vegas showgirl.
She stops, momentarily, to talk about her process, near photos of DiCaprio and Cruise.
I never make anyone do anything they dont want to do. It came from people asking for directions, she says. There is definitely a balance between letting things unfold and having to direct. I am a reluctant director.
At one point, she is standing at the photo that seemed to say the least, so hushed, so reserved it almost receded into the grayness.
I didnt think anyone else liked it but me, she says plainly, gesturing towards a spare portrait of Agnes Martin, an American abstract painter and a personal favorite of Leibovitz.
At they chatted in Martins Taos home, the artist told Leibovitz that the routine of sitting on her bed was part of her path to art.
I sit here and wait to be inspired, Martin said, the simplicity of the explanation serving as Leibovitzs own inspiration of how to best capture the moment. So, the picture is precisely that, Martin sitting upright on the edge of her bed, looking directly toward the cameras lens.
I guess its a very personal picture for me, because I think we all hope for that, she explained. Were all waiting to be inspired.