It’s been over 15 years since Annie Leibovitz and Susan Sontag created the original “Women” project, featuring a selection of women from all sections of American society. Now, Swiss bank UBS has commissioned a follow-up to that seminal work: “Women: New Portraits.” The exhibition, which will travel to 10 cities over the next 12 months, just opened in London and was introduced by Leibovitz herself—with help from Gloria Steinem, who’s also one of the show’s subjects. It’s not simply a repetition of an old concept, but a continuation of what Leibovitz calls a “work in progress.” The new photographs include Lena Dunham and Lupita Nyong’o, Adele and Cindy Sherman, Jane Goodall and Amy Schumer, and the show works not just on an immediate level, but also as a reminder of how the world has changed since the original “Women” in 1999.
Leibovitz describes the new show as “very democratic—all the frame sizes are equal. The idea behind ‘Women’ is to have, for example, Hilary Clinton next to a homeless woman. There was no rhyme or reason, it was supposed to be more arbitrary.” She believes there have been positive changes to society since the 1999 project, pointing out Lupita Nyong’o’s role as the face of Lancôme and the reception to Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover, shot by Leibovitz, as examples. “I didn’t expect the media to immediately embrace Caitlyn Jenner. I was so moved by that, I think it’s definitely a step forward,” she said.
As well as the new portraits, the exhibition also displays the 1999 images, still powerful today. Steinem underlines how Leibovitz’s strength lies in showing women not as objects, but as humans that each have a story, adding, “Taking these photographs to 10 cities is going to make such a difference. It’s important to show women as full of humanity, and it’s especially important because at this moment in time, there’s a lot of violence towards women in the world.”
While Leibovitz’s style is immediately recognizable in both the old and new works, there’s been plenty of changes to photography’s place in society in the 17 years since the last show. When asked about her thoughts on the way we take photographs now—from Instagramming our breakfasts to selfies—Leibovitz is nothing but positive. “I remember being a young photographer when I was a student, and how being able to use my camera got me out into the world. You could see it, and it gave you permission to look in places that otherwise you maybe wouldn’t have looked for. And that’s happening now, with young people having an interest in photography. Instagram is like a toy, it’s fun. It’s actually a great moment for photography now, with the phone camera. It’s a language—I can send a photo to my daughter and show where I am without having to say it. For anyone who wants to be a photographer, that’s another step, another level. There’s room for it all.”
The London exhibition is just the first part of the new project, and more women will be added as it moves on to Tokyo, Hong Kong, Mexico City, Istanbul and beyond. This first edition is held in the beautiful Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, which was a gallery for a long time, but has been out of use for a while. The high ceilings and industrial surroundings underline the intimacy and frankness of the portraits, which are both powerful and vulnerable—and completely human. Leibovitz’s ability to capture the true nature of her subjects might be down to her world view. She explains: “I think that there’s more than two sides to a human, to anything; we’re complicated people. I trust us as a society, and I think we’re smart. When we fall down, or mess up, we get it and we right ourselves. I’ve always believed that the audience is very smart, and I’ve always photographed that way.“
Annie Leibovitz’s “Women: New Portraits” opens 16 January in London and will run through 7 February 2016. After that, the exhibition will travel to Tokyo, San Francisco, Singapore, Hong Kong, Mexico, Istanbul, Frankfurt, New York and Zurich; keep an eye on the UBS site for more details.
Gloria Steinem portrait courtesy Annie Leibovitz “WOMEN: New Portraits” exhibition commissioned by UBS, all others by Cajsa Carlson