Just Because We Can Doesn’t Mean We Should – Photography as Conceptual Art

I read this morning that a body of work by Annie Leibovitz is being presented at Art Basel as a 200 cm x 100 cm composite of her Driving series from the 1970s and early 80s.  While this on its own is not great shakes, it goes to the continuing issue of bigger is better.  Instead of 63 images in a book, these have been assembled in a digital grid – 9 across and 6 down – unlike the original images, which were of course analog.  So, how do we read this.  Is it a means to an end, as in achieving a huge price point, for a work by Annie Leibovitz?  I don’t get it. 

Leibovitz’s gallery, Hauser and Wirth – a Gagosian Gallery in training – when announcing their exclusive representation of the photographer, said among other things:  “…through a poetic body of far-reaching work Leibovitz has become an avatar of the changing cultural role of photography as an artistic medium”.  I don’t even know what that means….. 

Hauser and Wirth is a global super gallery that represents few photographers, a lot of conceptual artists, and I guess, now Annie Leibovitz.

I have a lot of time for Leibovitz’s work in her days at Rolling Stone Magazine, but sadly, I think she lost it a bit over time going to large crews, huge production and lighting get-ups and sadly more and more digital manipulation.  The final straw for me was when I read that she shot Queen Elizabeth II for an official portrait and then decided it was better if she moved her outside, expect she only did that on the computer, so we have a photograph taken inside Buckingham Palace with perfect, controlled lighting and a completely fabricated background.  Maybe she was thinking of Renaissance portraits that often had highly imaginative landscapes in the background, like the Mona Lisa? 

Leibovitz, Annie – Queen Elizabeth II

All this to say that I am a great admirer of Leibovitz’s handheld, spontaneous and opportunistic photographs of artists and people driving cars, but she seems to have lost the plot and is now represented by a gallery that is playing with the price point of her work to create a new and different Annie Leibovitz, no longer a photographer, but some kind of conceptual artist.

Incidentally, Hauser and Wirth also represent August Sander, about whom they say “Sander is now viewed as a forefather of conceptual art…..”  Serieux?  The same August Sander that the gallery quotes on its homepage, just a few lines above, saying:  “I hate nothing more than sugary photographs with tricks, poses and effects. So allow me to be honest and tell the truth about our age and its people”. I guess you will say anything to get your artists to fit within certain gallery parameters.

One has to wonder about the big global galleries (read super expensive) that are said to manage the careers of their stable of artists, and, I am told, unceremoniously dump them, if they cannot reach a particular price point within a certain period of time. These galleries usually will show a variety of artists; great masters of modern painting and sculpture, contemporary artists and the occasional photographer.  They will include the photographer, because the gallery’s clientele is the super wealthy that will pay top dollar for art recommended by these galleries, and at the moment, photography is cool.

But how do you solve the price point? Bigger is better, seems to be the answer. Gursky’s huge digitally manipulated plexiglass mounted images, or Jeff Wall’s equally huge digital tableau prints and light boxes, help justify the price. Now, you can add Leibovitz’s 9 x 7 grid of drivers in cars.

One has to wonder, if clients are actually buying art, or are buying a gallery provenance.  Do they say:  ‘I bought this at Hauser and Wirth’, or ‘I bought a photograph by Annie Leibovitz’.  A guess? …….Anyone?

Annie, the Avatar, as defined by Webster:  “An electronic image that represents and may be manipulated by a computer user”.  Appropriate?  I am sorry Ms. Leibovitz has chosen this path.  Her work deserves better.

Harbel

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