Venus and Serena Williams, Sheryl Sandberg, Malala – these are just some of the powerful women captured on camera by renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz for her WOMEN: New Portraits series which is being shown in Zurich.
Leibovitz appeared in person at the city’s ewz-Unterwerk Selnau building on Wednesday for the press launch of the exhibition. The new portraits, a continuation of a project which Leibovitz started in 1999, have been commissioned by Swiss banking giant UBS. The exhibition is finishing its ten-city tour in Zurich, opening its doors to the public on January 28.
The 67-year-old photographer is famous for her memorable celebrity images, including a nude John Lennon next to his clothed wife Yoko Ono and a picture of actor Demi Moore, unclothed and pregnant.
Tall and striking, dressed all in black, she explained that when she started the women’s portrait project 17 years ago – with her late partner Susan Sontag – she just went out and took images of “miners, teachers, soldiers and poets, there was a homeless woman, a woman on death row”.
“These were a very good foundation. When I returned to the project with this set of pictures I really wanted to catch up with women not so much from all walks of life, but women who were in our collective consciousness that had been some place and achieved something,” she told reporters.
What was clear was that there was more confidence in 2016 – when most of the pictures were taken – compared with 1999. “In 1999 it was also hard to find business women running their own companies,” said Leibovitz. Hence the inclusion of Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating office of Facebook, and Kathleen Kennedy, who is the president of Lucasfilm and brand manager of the Star Wars franchise.
Leibovitz also wanted to include the youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala, an education campaigner, who is photographed in a classroom.
Particularly moving is a portrait of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams. It was taken in September 2016 after Serena unexpectedly lost in the semifinals of the United States Open and, at the same time, her number one ranking. Leibovitz explained that she was inspired by a press shot of the women hugging after that match. Her version wasn’t what she expected.
“I wanted them to be on more equal ground but I just felt that is really the reality: that they take care of each other.”
Work in progress
The women portraits project was described by Sontag back in 1999 as a “work in progress”. Although the exhibition ends in Zurich, will there be more portraits to come, swissinfo.ch wanted to know.
Leibovitz replied that she was going to photograph Cecile Richards from Planned Parenthood, who is a campaigner for women’s health and reproductive rights, this month and renowned journalist Christiane Amanpour at a refugee camp in February.
“I am going to do a bit more of that kind of work and even though this show will basically stop here, these portraits will never stop, so it’ll continue,” she told swissinfo.ch.
“[These women] represent [important] issues, and are the face of these issues and I’m looking forward to this kind of work.”
Around 150,000 people have visited the exhibition on its global tour. UBS has made the exhibition free to the public and it includes accompanying talks “women for women” addressing women’s rights topics. The Zurich one will be held on January 27 and includes 200 invitees, leading women in their fields.
“The nice thing is about the exhibition is that it grows. At every stop, Annie Leibovitz also takes pictures locally of female leaders or people that are inspiring to her and those become part of the collection, and of course Zurich gets to benefit from that because they have now the fullest [collection] of pictures,” Hubertus Kuelps, Group Head of Communications and Branding for UBS, told swissinfo.ch, adding that Leibovitz would be taking pictures in Zurich.
Some museums have asked if they can show the Leibovitz pictures from the bank’s collection.
Born in 1949 in Connecticut in the United States, Leibovitz has a 45-year-long career. She started off as a photojournalist for Rolling Stone in the 1970s and later worked for Vanity Fair and Vogue. One of her most famous works is the double portrait of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, taken shortly before Lennon was shot in 1980.
Among other honours, Leibovitz has been made a Living Legend by the US Library of Congress.
Several collections of Leibovitz’s work have been published and exhibitions of her photographs have appeared at museums and galleries all over the world, from the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC to the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia.