Annie Leibovitz’s ‘master set’ both iconic, personal

Scarlett Johansson, Los Angeles, 2004. © Annie Leibovitz

Scarlett Johansson, Los Angeles, 2004. © Annie Leibovitz

COLUMBUS, Ohio — It was a job in itself for Annie Leibovitz to cull the first 40 years of her wide-ranging life as a photographer down to a core “master set” to be turned into museum-quality prints.

Leibovitz had so many pivotal moments to draw from: her thousands of assignments for Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and Vogue; her enviable access to rock stars, athletes, dancers and politicians; and volumes of personal photographs.

The 63-year-old Leibovitz envisioned selecting 100 prints as a legacy for her three children, but ultimately landed at 156. The full complement, “Annie Leibovitz: Master Set,” is displayed the first time in its entirety at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus through Dec. 30.

“Each photograph is kind of a landmark for me or a moment or a place, or represents not only someplace in cultural history but also in photography for me,” Leibovitz said in an interview with The Associated Press.

John Lennon clinging naked to Yoko Ono, the nude and pregnant Demi Moore, and Whoopi Goldberg in a bathtub of milk are all here. So are Mick Jagger, Hunter Thompson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Miles Davis, George W. Bush, the Obamas and Queen Elizabeth II.

Leibovitz also included the faces of those dear to her but perhaps lesser-known to consumers of her celebrated magazine photography: her daughter, Sarah, staring through wide infant eyes; her siblings; and her mother looking both stalwart and kind.

Her photojournalism also is represented, including an iconic image of the red carpet being withdrawn as Richard Nixon departs the White House.

“You see the history of my adventure in photography through the work,” Leibovitz said. “It’s a very eclectic, I’d have to say even an uneven, set. It’s not cohesive and smooth, it’s kind of erratic.”

Leibovitz said she borrowed the idea of focusing on a narrow selection of work from famed landscape photographer and environmentalist Ansel Adams, who staged a retrospective exhibition in 1974 and spent much of his later career making reprints.

“As a magazine photographer … you’re not making prints, you’re not thinking about prints,” she said. “So really the master set was an idea based on something that Ansel Adams did at a certain point in his life. He stopped and he thought, looking back on a certain point in his life, what he thought was important, and he spent the rest of his days printing those sets.”

Leibovitz intended this set of images to be available to museums and other institutions, but she had never envisioned it as a show. The idea was slipped to one of her associates by Wexner Center director Sherri Geldin, with whom Leibovitz had a growing professional rapport, and it clicked.

Leibovitz said the Wexner is legendary among artists and provided the right fit for showing the work.

“It was just this mythological place,” she said. “They’re just a place that supports artists.”

The master set is paired with two other installations for the run of show. Her Smithsonian-curated show “Pilgrimage” is displayed in the center gallery of the museum. It’s a collection of images of iconic items, such as Sigmund Freud’s couch and Elvis Presley’s motorcycle.

And in the museum lobby is a casually hung collection of Leibovitz’s photographs of dozens of artists who have displayed, performed or been featured or honored by the Wexner. Leibovitz became the latest recipient of the prestigious Wexner Prize ahead of the show’s opening.

The Leibovitz show had the early signs of a blowout for the museum, something Geldin views as good for both the Wexner and Leibovitz.

“We are able to put Annie’s work in a context that allows it to be seen as fine art,” Geldin said. “Often people who get their start in photojournalism and remain more or less in magazines and the media, they’re sort of thought of us stepchildren in the art world. And I think these works are extraordinarily artistic. Annie’s artistry is unquestionable.”

The master set exhibit represents Leibovitz’s work from 1968 to 2009.

“It isn’t a greatest hits, but it’s milestones in the work for me,” the photographer said.

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Scarlett Johansson, Los Angeles, 2004. © Annie Leibovitz

Scarlett Johansson, Los Angeles, 2004. © Annie Leibovitz