New Portraits

A couple of months before the most recent US presidential inauguration, I had the pleasure of attending Annie Leibovitz’s photography exhibit, Women: New Portraits, at Lola Montez, the small, cement-walled art museum under the Honsell Bridge in Frankfurt’s East End. The photographs were stunning, as I had expected, but also surprisingly personal despite the star status of many of Leibovitz’s subjects.

Venus and Serena Williams share a powerful, intimate embrace. A young Meryl Streep tugs at the edges of her face, painted like a pantomime’s. Olympian Katie Ledecky swims on her back in a color photograph that, for a moment, seems to move. Many of these pictures I had seen before, as has anyone who has picked up a copy of Rolling Stone, Vogue or Vanity Fair in the last few decades, or for that matter, stood in line in a grocery store. John Lennon wrapped naked around a clothed Yoko Ono? Pregnant Demi Moore, caressing her magnificent belly? What’s so new about these, I wondered.

In a zigzag shuffle among the other stargazers in this hip art house built into the underside of a bridge, I walked along the rows of images, trying to discover what made them so vital again in our particular moment. Was it simply the abiding beauty of the subjects, or Leibovitz’s virtuosity and endurance in a project begun over 15 years ago? Was it the united feminine strength, here quite literally forming a wall, in the face of our increasingly masculine zeitgeist? I paused in a clearing in front of the large black-and-white headshot of Jane Goodall, and quite unexpectedly broke into full-on tears.