Cindy Sherman, New York City, 1992, by Annie Leibovitz.
Annie Leibovitz’s reputation is an odd one. The best-known portraitist in America today—from her 1970s photos for Rolling Stone to her current work for Vanity Fair—Leibovitz has several shots as iconic as the celebrities they depict. Yet what deeper truths does she reveal? “It is visual shorthand,” argues The New York Times critic Ginia Bellafante. “Ms. Leibovitz shows up to merchandise the prevailing image of whomever she’s shooting—often wittily, almost always arrestingly—but rarely to get beyond it.” That hasn’t always been so—at least not when Leibovitz steps back from the role of all-arranging overseer into that of silently observing photojournalist. Her off-the-cuff 1970s shots of Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, and the Rolling Stones are both masterful and revealing. Similarly, the best work in a new retrospective show of hers at the Norton Museum of Art—from 1968 photos of US soldiers to a 1988 portrait of the Reverend Al Sharpton having his hair styled—are the ones that are least staged and most natural. Indeed, Sharpton should have been the model for a 1992 portrait of self-disguising artist Cindy Sherman. Instead, Leibovitz wryly placed Sherman in a lineup with eight other look- alikes. “I wanted to photograph all of them in the same outfit Cindy was wearing when she met me,” Leibovitz recalls in her Annie Leibovitz at Work monograph of that initial informal encounter at Sherman’s downtown New York loft. “But it turned out that the simple white shirt was from Agnes B, the pants were by some Italian designer, and the shoes were Manolo Blahnik. It would have cost too much to dress everyone like that, so we went to the Gap for the pants and shirts.” As eye-grabbing as Leibovitz’s final portrait may be, her throwaway detail tells us far more about Sherman’s personal transformation from struggling bohemian to art world star. “Annie Leibovitz” opens January 17 at the Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach, 561-832-5196; norton.org