Annie Leibovitz pauses to consider her answer during an audience Q-and-A at the opening of "Annie Leibovitz at Work" at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art on Friday, Sept. 15, 2023 in Bentonville, Arkansas. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

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Just two hours’s drive southwest of Springfield is an opportunity to see the work of one of America’s greatest living visual artists. 

From now until Jan. 29, 2024, “Annie Leibovitz at Work” is presented by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. The show encompasses her earliest work, even before her storied career with Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and Vogue, to her newest work, commissioned by Crystal Bridges. Twenty-five of the new photographs will remain in the museum’s permanent collection.

Annie, and it’s “Annie” to one and all, was in a reflective mood as she led a tour of visiting journalists on a preview of the show. Her enthusiasm for “the work” as she often referred to it, never waned, even while she indulged in the occasional bit of self-deprecating humor or self-doubt. 

Asked to comment on the state of photography at a time when everyone with a smartphone is a photographer of some sort, she replied, “The basics are still there and I think there are still photographers who can differentiate themselves from the everyday use of the iPhone. For me, it’s the more the merrier. I just love the ability for young people to see themselves. That’s what photography did for me when I was a young girl. So I think the fact that imagery is alive and well — that’s great. I do think if you want to be a photographer, it has a different set of criteria. I think that what’s in that [her older] work from 15 years ago is still relevant today.”

Annie Leibovitz, center/glasses, leads media guests on a tour of her new exhibit. “Annie Leibovitz at Work,” at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023 in Bentonville, Arkansas.(Photo by Jym Wilson)

When reminded by the Springfield Daily Citizen that her longtime companion, the late Susan Sontag, once described photographers as five-year-old boys running around pointing at things and then asked how she keeps her inner five-year old alive, Leibovitz laughs.

“My older daughter says I’m seven,” Leibovitz said. “Sometimes I’m 12. It’s almost too alive. No, it’s alive. It’s very alive. Listen, I’m so lucky. I love my work.”

The exhibit is set up and paced in a deliberate manner. 

“I wanted the show to be for young photographers, or anyone interested in photography,”  Leibovitz said. “I set up the first two rooms as kind of ‘ah-ha’ moments for me (from) my 54 years of work that taught me about photography along the way. I wanted a young person to be able to see that and see what I kind of went through and explain that a little bit.”

110 of Annie Leibovitz's best known photographs are tacked border-to-border to panels of Homasote
Displayed salon style, 110 of Annie Leibovitz’s best known photographs are tacked border-to-border to panels of Homasote, a recycled building material, with push pins. Visitors played a guessing game of “who is that?” with each other on the show’s opening day. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Describing her photo of the carpet being rolled up on the South Lawn of the White House as a helicopter carries disgraced President Richard Nixon away, Leibovitz recalls, “This is, again, an ‘ah-ha’ moment in photography, because I’m there with really incredible White House photographers, veterans, used to working every single day. Nixon was in the helicopter, it was lifting off. Me being sort of nobody and being kind off to the side and not being able to get in position…the veteran photographers walked off and I looked and I said, ‘Oh…’ and I took this picture. What it is, is it’s not ‘the moment.’ It’s not when Nixon is at the door waving. It’s an after moment, or an in between moment… It gives you a lot of information.” 

Not only did that photograph become a symbol of the end of Watergate, but it marked a turning point for Rolling Stone. Leibovitz had been assigned to the White House that day with the magazine’s ‘gonzo journalist,’ Hunter S. Thompson. 

“Hunter never made it,” Leibovitz said of Thompson. “He was poolside at the Hilton in Washington, D.C. watching it on TV. Because of that, he never filed a story. Rolling Stone ended up running, for the first time, 11 pages of my pictures. It was the first time they ran a photo spread, because they had all this empty space. So it was a big deal.”

‘Victim to the whole circus’

A nook in the first gallery of “Annie Leibovitz at Work” is devoted to photographs from her time spent as tour photographer for The Rolling Stones in 1975. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

A nook in the first section of the show is devoted to Leibovitz’s photos from The Rolling Stones 1975 tour. 

“Mick Jagger asked me to be the tour photographer,” Leibovitz said. “Robert Frank had done the 1972 tour, and I thought, ‘If Robert Frank [one of the 20th Century’s most influential photographers] can do that, I wanna go out there and try to do something as well.’” 

“I shot a lot of film. A lot of it was not really seen until later,” Leibovitz said of the tour. “I sort of fell victim to the whole circus and it was really a learning lesson for a young photographer. I felt up until that time… I had it figured out. I thought you become one with your subjects, you get involved, you’re like there, you do what they do. I mean, how could I think about doing that with a rock’n’roll band of men? Needless to say, I have no regrets. You know what I mean? It would be safe to say I almost lost it — didn’t come back completely. My friends would say I was still on tour eight years later.”

“From that time, as a photographer, I never got that close again,” Leibovitz said. “I never went in that close. I didn’t want to give up myself completely like that. I always have like a distance now. I really go, and I take photographs, and I go home.”

Iconic and fateful photo of Lennon

Annie Leibovitz's iconic photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono
Annie Leibovitz made deliberate choices on how photographs were displayed and what photographs were adjacent to each other. Consequently, the placement of her iconic photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, made the afternoon before Lennon’s murder in 1980, is telling. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Leibovitz’s best known photograph is her Pieta-like portrait of John Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono, made on Dec. 8, 1980. 

“John and Yoko were just coming back. They had just done an album called ‘Double Fantasy,’” Leibovitz said. “There was a photograph of them kissing on the cover. I was so taken by that, the picture of them kissing each other. When I went to see them, I asked if they would hold each other and hug each other. They were always taking their clothes off, so I wanted them both to take their clothes off and Yoko at the last minute wouldn’t do it. She said, ‘…I’m not taking my pants off.’ I was irritated and I said, ‘Leave everything on.’ And we took a Polaroid and John looked at the photo and he said, ‘Oh, that’s really us.’” 

That evening, Lennon would be murdered on the streets of New York City by a deranged fan.

“So another interesting thing in photography and photographs that had a certain kind of meaning at the moment, at the time, suddenly it changes,” Leibovitz said. “The meaning changes. The story changes with what happened. It’s like, ‘Oh, is it a kiss goodbye?’”

During her walk through the Crystal Bridges exhibit, Leibovitz talks about young people and aspiring photographers. A prolific collector of photo books, she has one gallery set aside for a table covered with books. Some of them are her own works, but the majority are by photographers who have influenced her. The room is set up in hope that people visiting her show will stop and look at the work by others. 

“I love books,” Leibovitz said. “They are my biggest teacher.”

No frames, just pins

Rather than typical gallery framing, Annie Leibovitz chooses to tack her work to Homasote, a recycled building material, with push pins. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

The penultimate room of the exhibition will likely prove to be a favorite for attendees. Displayed salon style, 110 of Leibovitz’s better known photographs are literally tacked border-to-border to panels of Homasote, a recycled building material, with push pins.

Push pins? The exhibit’s curator Alejo Benedetti explains. 

“I think that was a conversation we had from the very outset. We started talking about framing and Annie was like ‘Whoa I don’t want any frames because framing it makes it seem too precious.’” Benedetti continues, “This is a living, breathing thing. When she’s in the studio she’s tacking them up and when she’s here, she wanted to translate that. So if the image is punctured a little bit on the corner, that’s OK.”

Curator for ‘At Work’ offers advice for visitors

The Springfield Daily Citizen asked Alejo Benedetti, Acting Curator of Contemporary Art at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, for advice to visitors to “Annie Leibovitz at Work”

  • “You need to go into it with the understanding that you will see artwork from across Leibovitz’s career, but this is not a retrospective.”
  • “This is Annie Leibovitz reflecting on her career in a very personal way, a very intimate way, and in a very vulnerable way.”
Alejo Benedetti, Acting Curator of Contemporary Art at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art was the museum’s curator for “Annie Leibovitz at Work.” Benedetti worked closely with the artist and her team on the show’s presentation. (Photo by Jym Wilson)
  • When you are walking through, she is telling stories and she is making certain decisions very intentionally, so that the way that we are interacting with these photos is different than the way we might expect to interact with an image that has become so iconic (such as the John Lennon/Yoko Ono photograph).
  • Think about how one photograph is speaking to another photograph and the constellations that she creates. The Daily Citizen would suggest visitors pay particular attention to this in the last two galleries. Look at where the photograph of Bob Dylan hangs in her salon presentation.
  • She has dropped what Benedetti would call Easter eggs throughout the show. If you are walking through and you are seeing the great shots of Apollo 17, she is covering the last manned trip to the moon. That’s in the very first gallery. Then you get to the end and you have the screens, and all of the sudden, here’s the Artemis 2 crew — this manned trip back to the moon and there’s this callback that she’s doing that’s inspired. 
  • “I don’t think anybody would refer to Annie Leibovitz as a funny photographer, but there are moments when she drops in things that are kind of cheeky and a hint of funny,” Benedetti said.

We will leave it up to the individual to decide if that explanation is in itself a bit too precious. One might think that work by an artist frequently called the greatest living portrait photographer deserves framing and presentation as formal and elegant as the work itself. By comparison, one need only walk to the other end of the museum and enter Salon Hang. In that gallery space, nearly 50 of the collection’s finest pieces are displayed from floor to ceiling, each of them gracefully framed.

Annie Leibovitz talks about the work in her new exhibit in the salon gallery of the show. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

One message that comes through on the wall, and indeed, throughout the entire show, is the rich racial diversity of Annie Leibovitz’s subjects. From photos of Sly Stone from the mid-1970s to the most recently confirmed U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Ketanji Brown Jackson, Leibovitz’s work continues to document enormous influence of people of color.

Some of the photographs intended for the final gallery were not completed for the first stop of the exhibit. 

“She is actively making more work. She is not a studio photographer,” Benedetti explained. “She likes to go to the people. She likes to actually be in a space that is important and significant to that person. And as she is traveling, working on works for this show, the topography of the show has to change… She gave us fair warning that she was going to be working up until the last moment because she is that excited.”

From push-pinned prints to high-res projection

The final gallery of "Annie Leibovitz at Work," informally called the screens room.
The final gallery of “Annie Leibovitz at Work,” informally called the screens room, features giant projections of work including that commissioned by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

The photographs in the final gallery are presented as a sort of high-tech digital slide show. Approximately two hundred pictures of Leibovitz’s older and newest work dissolve on massive screens. 

“I started to use screens for the ‘Women’ show that traveled,” Leibovitz said. “I’ve been intrigued by them because you can never see your work that big, so I thought If I did a set of screens for Crystal Bridges, I could work right up until the end and keep plugging photographs in there. We didn’t quite get everyone done for this opening, so I do plan to continue.”

Explaining the thinking that went into her editing for the screen photos Leibovitz said, “What I found interesting is as I was working on the screens with the newer work, I found older work that sort of correlated with it. So in the screens you’ll see relationships which are quite interesting.”

The exhibit “Annie Leibovitz at Work” bears the same title as one of her books. Explaining how that coincidence came about, she told the Springfield Daily Citizen, “I kept getting asked by young photographers, ‘How do you take a picture?’ So we sat down and took 15 stories [about specific photographs] that were interesting and I wrote about them and how they were made.”

The final gallery of “Annie Leibovitz at Work,” features projections on screens of Leibovitz’s work, including photographs commissioned by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Leibovitz said she and the curators struggled to title the show at Crystal Bridges.

“We wanted to say something about ‘Who are we?’ and I didn’t feel it was about that anymore, especially with the work still in progress, so we came back to ‘At Work,’” Leibovitz said. “It doesn’t quite work, but I like it, and as I say in those words over there, ‘There’s no end in sight.’ Although I was thinking about that a couple of days after I wrote that, I think there might be an end in sight. We only live so long.”

“Annie Leibovitz at Work” is not intended to be viewed as a retrospective, but rather as a master class in “ah-ha” moments as well as a reminder to always be looking, always be seeing. 

There are deliberate pairings and groupings of photographs throughout the show that are proof of the lessons that can be both taught and learned from being observant. Leibovitz summed it up at one point saying, “It’s an incredible life, incredible career, incredible medium. I am so lucky that I like what I do. Sometimes you’re photographing people and you’re in their lives and you just have these moments.”

Visiting Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is an opportunity to share these moments through the eyes of a great artist.

A gallery set aside for books, some of them by Leibovitz, but the majority by photographers who have influenced her. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

If you go

  • Crystal Bridges is open Mondays and Wednesdays 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays 11 a.m.-8 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays 10 a.m.-6 p.m. The museum is closed on Tuesdays, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.
  • Admission to the museum is free, as is parking. Admission to the Leibovitz exhibit is $12, (free for museum members, other discounts available). Purchasing tickets online in advance is strongly recommended.
  • “Annie Leibovitz At Work” is on display at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art from now until January 29, 2024.
  • The museum is located at 600 Museum Way, Bentonville, AR 72712; approximately two hours’ drive by interstate highway from Springfield.
  • For additional information, check the museum’s website

Jym Wilson

Jym Wilson is a veteran photojournalist who has covered a multitude of topics throughout his career. He’s a Vermont native who began his career at the Burlington (VT) Free Press. He worked as a photo editor at USA Today for 18 years, specializing in entertainment coverage. His work has appeared in the Springfield Daily Citizen since the day of its launch in 2022.
Email: More by Jym Wilson