If, like me, you’ve never seen a photograph of Tennessee Williams, the image you have in your mind of the great playwright is probably a far cry than the genuine article, as shot in 1974 by Annie Leibovitz. Williams is sitting in a rumply bed, a pudgy bespectacled guy clutching an even pudgier Boston terrier. It doesn’t scream literary lion so much as bowler.
The image is one of 40-plus framed photographs on display at the Norton Museum of Art’s long-awaited Annie Leibovitz exhibition, which opened in mid-January to tremendous numbers. In my visit, on a Tuesday afternoon, I’d never seen so many people in one Norton gallery, and for good reason. This is an exhibition that realizes the goal of every photographer – to make us see things differently. To challenge and subvert our perceptions. The Tennessee Williams shot undercuts the man’s mythic genius, revealing that he’s a flesh-and-blood man with a receding hairline, a paunch and and an overfed pooch.
Some of the best shots in “Annie Leibovitz” carry this sense of surprise and awe, revealing new facets of character through their placement in atypic settings, props and actions. The Polish writer Jerzy Kosinski is rebranded as an American cowboy, donning boots and spurs inside a stable. A young Leonardo DiCaprio looks both dashing and absurd cuddling a swan. And Al Sharpton is photographed with curlers in his hair during a visit to a local barbershop, an image that is both quintessentially Harlem and, for an orator of such bluster and bombast, utterly demystifying.
Other images speak to, not away from, their subjects’ pop-culture image, playing up our perceptions rather than subverting them. Brad Pitt is positioned on a red bedsheet in a luridly colorful full-body shot that buttresses his reputation as a lusty pinup for teenage girls; it looks like a fully clothed cheesecake shot. Lil’ Kim, meanwhile, is photographed wearing a mesh top that hides absolutely nothing, reflecting her persona as a woman of little modesty. Lucinda Williams looks intense and forlorn at the side of an open road, next to a truck with one door open, presumably broken down; the image is the very embodiment of her music. We see Christopher Walken and a shirtless Dennis Hopper, the cinema’s ambassadors of weirdness, looking quintessentially strange while sitting in a hotel room that normally couldn’t be more banal; not so with these two oddballs crazifying it. And my favorite photo in the exhibition shows David Byrne staring into the camera and wearing a bowtie and a suit made out of lettuce. If it was never used in the album art for any of his records, it should have been.
Other pieces seek, and succeed, to present a bit of commentary, about the people themselves or the world around them. And some of them are quite sad, in contrast to the absurdist humor of others. Minimalist artist Agnes Martin sits alone in a desolate hotel room, the very picture of aching loneliness. Veteran fife player Othar Turner was once a successful bluesman, now languishing in a post-blues world – a master musician wilting in a chair in a ramshackle interior. And two images of topless Vegas dancer Susan McNamara, taken from Leibovitz’s “Abstract: Portfolio” series, reveal the yin and yang of her personal and professional duality, showing side by side images of the prim, bespectacled woman off the job and the bare-all sex object onstage. It’s hard to believe we’re looking at the same person.
The Norton’s curatorial team did an excellent job mounting this show, creating fun connections between works. John Irving, in his spandex wrestling attire of yore, is positioned between those two renegades of New Journalism, Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, to form a triptych of pioneering writers. And in the show’s introductory gallery, people in chairs frame one wall, including my favorite side-by-side image: One of Ruther Bader Ginsberg next to the other famous Ginsberg: Allen. Leibovitz captures the essence of both of these people, as she does everyone else in this wonderful show – a testament to her incredible ability to see what others can’t, or haven’t, no matter who is staring into her lens.
"Annie Leibovitz" is on display through June 9 at Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach. Tickets are $12 adults and $5 children.