Tear the Prison Down

Annie Leibovitz's new exhibit gestures at liberal feminism's conflicts with race and class without really confronting them.

Annie Leibovitz's "Women" exhibit in London. Cajsa Carleton

Annie Leibovitz’s new photo exhibition, “Women: New Portraits,” which traveled through New York last month, is both forceful and fraught. Her attention to the interiority of her subjects, juxtaposed with the show’s agitprop staging, urges viewers to question who “women” are and on what basis can they be considered a collective force. Yet the show’s premise also implies that Leibovitz has somehow represented “women” — a claim that veers perilously close to a fashion magazine spread, blithely bypassing all other political, social, and personal realities. Leibovitz’s exhibition, then, is as compelling, urgent, and unfinished as the history of feminism itself.

A “Radical” Idea

“Women” returns to a project that Leibovitz undertook in collaboration with her late partner Susan Sontag, published and exhibited widely in 1999. In some respects, the exhibit is a traditional portrait series drawing on Leibovitz’s long career as a celebrity photographer; the subjects are disproportionately famous women.

Yet many of the women pictured are also diverse and outspoken — activists, writers, artists, models, businesswomen, and politicians like Kara Walker, Amy Schumer, Misty Copeland, Caitlyn Jenner, Wendi Deng Murdoch, Elizabeth Warren, Patti Smith, Lupita Nyong’o, Michelle Obama, and Laura Poitras. Most are American, and most have a public voice, though Leibovitz has included several global women’s advocates like Malala Yousafzai and Aung San Suu Kyi, in a gesture toward geographical comprehensiveness.

Ordinary women find their way here as well, though for the most part their photographs are recycled from the larger 1999 show in which Leibovitz made an effort to include women one might encounter in everyday life: health-care attendants at a Circle K in Rockdale, Texas; farmers in California’s Central Valley; a police officer from Hoboken; twin sisters in Miami Beach in matching yellow sundresses; a baseball pitcher in the act of delivering a two-seam fastball, ponytail whipping around her face; a young teacher in the South Bronx, her shirt lightly dusted with chalk.

But the new exhibit is not a simple extension of the 1999 show: Leibovitz collaborated with Gloria Steinem to make the current show an activist project. As the exhibit travels internationally, it has been accompanied by a series of planned “talking circles,” non-hierarchical community-building discussions. The talking circles are meant to mirror the potential and the approach of the exhibit itself, as women sit down “eye-to-eye” to find common goals for which they can begin to advocate. As Steinem has argued elsewhere, this “activism 101” strategy aims to give all women, especially those most marginalized by poverty, race, sexuality, and nation, a voice.

The intent is laudable, but the political takeaway is less clear. Are we meant to understand the portraits as part of a grassroots strategy, and the women photographed as a sort of talking circle? It’s hard to imagine Sheryl Sandberg — photographed in a corporate boardroom in Menlo Park — telling Tammie Winfield, a home health worker and victim of domestic violence seeking treatment at the Crime Victim’s Center in St Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital, to “lean in.”

Moreover, if “Women” illustrates the contradictory nature of its own premise, its activist ambitions dishearteningly demonstrate that while all women can be victimized (#yesallwomen) they won’t all become feminists. This doesn’t negate feminism but it does beg for collective strategies far beyond the ones liberal feminism has put on offer.

Leibovitz doesn’t address or acknowledge these incongruities, but asking viewers to puzzle through them makes the show engaging and productive. The New York staging, in particular, tried to make sure that viewers did so by hanging the exhibit in the former Bayview Correctional Facility in Chelsea, 550 West 20th Street.

Bayview was a correctional drug-treatment facility turned women’s medium-security prison, imprisoning up to two hundred women charged under the Rockefeller drug laws. First closed after Hurricane Sandy drowned it in fourteen feet of water, the prison was then permanently closed in 2013. In 2015, redevelopment rights were granted to two progressive foundations who plan to turn the building into a center for nonprofit agencies, community services, and a women’s organizing center. Former prisoners, who convened an event with their families this past month as a part of the reclamation and closure of the building, will be part of the demolition crew.

Leibovitz’s New York exhibit was staged in the former prison’s gym — a simple arrangement of metal folding chairs, three large screens offering a digital slideshow of photographs, and a bulletin board of unframed prints with thumbtacked lines of twine leading to image descriptions. Far from the framed and museum-hung scale of the first exhibition, this second series is being shown in unfinished, industrial, or repurposed spaces — industrial buildings in Hong Kong, a railway station in Singapore, a former military barracks in San Francisco’s Presidio, a Wapping power station in London. The pop-up aesthetic lends the show an agitprop feel, of squatting, of a community meeting, of a project not yet ready to frame. It’s accessible, and admittance is free: you might even take your own photograph and tack it up.

The day I visited, the room was full. Mothers and daughters sat in the chairs, groups of friends whispered names as famous women’s faces passed by the slideshow, fathers stood back from the crowd, trying to keep the babies they were holding asleep.

Viewing world-famous portrait photography in a prison gym feels, like the show itself, both voyeuristic and inclusive, and raises thorny questions. Does the idea of “women” trade in on the radical setting or transform because of it? Leibovitz only hints at answers, but I think the show does both. For example, the portrait series of Hillary Clinton was likely read by many as a tribute, and Clinton’s inclusion in this activist-y show certainly gave her center-right politics a progressive ablution. But for anyone remembering Clinton’s infamous 1996 use of the term “super-predators,” the prison setting also casts a critical eye on her legacy.

The prison setting forces the show to turn around questions of violence and confinement. Bayview held fifteen solitary confinement cells, the exhibition insert reads, and a mid-1980s investigation reported “unsanitary conditions” and “the frequent occurrence of sexual harassment by male guards.” In fact, by the time it closed, Bayview had the highest rate of sexual abuse of prisoners by (mostly male) guards in the nation, a reminder that the social space of “women” is delineated by violence. The setting asks viewers to think about who “women” are from within the space of those who have been criminalized and marginalized, disproportionately women of color, largely women who are poor.

Yet the exhibit’s reading room dulls this message, and actually works to highlight the disconnect between the show’s radical goals and its broad liberal premise: photography books by Tina Modotti, Diane Arbus, and, unsettlingly, Nazi propagandist and cinema pioneer Leni Riefenstahl, lay next to reports on the state of reproductive health care in New York women’s prisons, and Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis.

What, if anything, do these books have to say to one another? The inclusion of Riefenstahl points to the fallibility of the idea of “women”; Riefenstahl directed Triumph of the Will — the influential 1935 propaganda film that popularized Hitler’s National Socialist Party and its ideas of Aryan superiority — and spent much of her career glamorizing a genocidal politics that sent millions of women to their deaths.

Does the shared experience of women truly give us anything in common?

Many believe it does. “Women” has been highly praised by critics who focus almost exclusively on single portraits, offering wispy tributes to “womanhood.” Vogue, whose editor-in-chief Anna Wintour’s photograph is part of the new series, calls Leibovitz’s installment a “celebration of womanhood.” Some find the exhibit’s focus on women’s individuality highly compelling, while others have read it as a paean to power feminism — the idea that an individual woman’s success benefits us all. They enthuse over the images of Queen Elizabeth II, Caitlyn Jenner, CEO Sheryl Sandberg, Hillary Clinton, and the portrait Leibovitz had hoped to secure of Angela Merkel.

Individuality is a longstanding theme for Leibovitz and Sontag. For Sontag, the project wasn’t a simple “celebration” as much as a call for viewers to probe their own preconceptions about looking at women (did they expect to see beauty? were they disappointed when they didn’t?). In her 1999 essay for the exhibition catalog, Sontag wrote

That women, in the same measure as men, should be able to fulfill their individuality is, of course, a radical idea. It is in this form, for better and worse, that the traditional feminist call for justice for women has come to be most plausible.

I understand Sontag to mean that legal justice recognizes only individuals, not the collective needs of a group. But this is not a secure hook on which to hang your civil rights. To be sure, the radical notion that women are people needs repeating, but the focus on women’s individuality as the basis for feminism (after decades of feminist and gender studies scholarship, activism, and organizing) is a declawed and defanged sort of politics; it’s the forcible reworking of feminist language into neoliberal individualism.

“Celebrating womanhood” and securing “justice” for one woman alone has always been much too limited: for consciousness-raising groups from the 1970s to now, it is the starting place, not the endpoint, for probing investigations into capitalism, patriarchy, racism, Marxism, and revolution.

The “radical idea” Sontag pointed to is a classically liberal one, which claims that we’re all autonomous selves with the same access to freedoms. Like much of classical liberalism, it contains both radical promise and the danger of absolving inequality through false equivalency.


As usual, though, despite her liberalism, Sontag was on to something. Focusing on radical individuality doesn’t have to be just a “celebration of womanhood;” it can also be a call to examine the constraints that bind women together. Leibovitz’s photographs powerfully convey her subjects’ inner lives, showing each woman’s reaction to the same set of problems. In making these shared problems visible, Leibovitz’s show gains its intriguing power, luminous aesthetic, and political edge.

Leibovitz’s great success as a portrait artist lies in her aesthetic and personal interest in her subjects’ inner lives, her understanding that surfaces — clothing, pose, presentation, setting — are only props. “A sitting is psychological,” she once said. What she shows us in this ongoing project is how women use the props they have available, how they manipulate their own surfaces.

Women, Leibovitz’s camera demonstrates, are always being watched by someone, and now, the exhibit proves, they are being watched by you. In the photographs, we see women aware of the gendered complications of voyeurism, trying to make it their own, to use it, to discard it. This is one thing that brings women (and “Women”) together.

Queen Elizabeth is depicted in full regalia, and we see a woman intent on displaying herself as an institution, not a person, and we wonder what that cost her. Actresses by the dozens show us their beauty, but in their expressions and poses, we are asked to think about their need for us to recognize that loveliness and how tired of it many may be. Farmer Karen Fedrau, sunburned, in the midst of hoeing a field in ill-fitting work clothes, has very little recourse to any self-fashioning beyond her labor, but we do see its fruits in her fields.

There are also displays of toughness: former governor Ann Richardson, perfectly manicured and in aviator shades, controls a rifle during a hunting excursion in Honey Grove, Texas; and three members of the West Side Crips all-girl gang in San Antonio stare down the camera. Showgirls in Las Vegas are photographed first in full color, nipples perfectly rouged and sequined costumes in place — and then in black and white in their own clothes, intimate and less staged, some laughing, with children, some disdainful of the camera’s appraisal once uncostumed.

Leibovitz is rarely judgmental in her portraits, instead allowing her subjects’ own choices to speak for themselves, as self-described “philanthropist” Brooke Astor does when she poses in a Chanel suit and diamond brooch in a room filled with antiques and cut-crystal candelabras. When Leibovitz suggests, she does so by juxtaposition: in the 1999 book, a table of bejeweled and powdered Texan society women, eagerly addressing the camera, are placed just before a tableau of five coal miners from Alabama, gamely posing in overalls and rubber boots, their faces dark with coal dust; whose womanhood is cosseted and whose is not?

In all these portraits, women are showing us the characters they desire to play and those they are forced to play, and how well they understand the difference. This is more than a celebration of individuality: it is an investigation into what it is to be seen as a woman and the struggle to move beyond women’s boundaries. It is a study in how people negotiate the confined space of “women” and sometimes trap themselves within it, and how some have little recourse or power to direct their presentation at all.


In this newest installation, Leibovitz offers a further line of inquiry into the confined and collective space of women by including photographs of archival artifacts: Marian Anderson’s concert gown, Virginia Woolf’s writing desk, Emily Dickinson’s herbarium, Georgia O’Keefe’s rock collections, sharpshooter Annie Oakley’s riding boots. In these composed and somber still lifes, Leibovitz gives the idea of “women” a history.

Histories are stories unfolding over time, and to give women a history is to show that a group of us have been made to be women — or have chosen to be women — from a space of unfreedom. The objects bear the forceful marks of their owners, used as tools to scratch a vision onto the unyielding world: Dickinson’s herbarium is delicate but unstintingly precise; Woolf’s desk battered, much used, and scratched from effort; Anderson’s dress voluminous and arresting, with one single crimson pleat unfolding down the golden skirt.

These photographs offer “women” as more than a single identity; women become a collective with historical resonance. Woolf, Anderson, Dickinson, O’Keefe all worked fiercely to shape their worlds, and though only Woolf sought to speak for “women,” to be labeled such was nonetheless for each a provocation and a spur to action. Each had to negotiate her own inclusion within its boundaries and expanses, to shape it within other experiences of race, class, sexuality, nation.

Our confinement by the notion of womanhood means very different things for different women; for many, the imprisonment has been literal, not metaphorical. These differences matter enormously, and feminism fails when it refuses to reckon with this. And yet — yes, all women are linked by systems that try to regulate our bodies and our labor and our very sense of self.

Here, then, is the unfinished and continuing work of Leibovitz’s exhibit and of feminism itself: a continuing struggle to push against the boundaries of “women” and a determination to explode its limited definition altogether. Some women benefit from these systems, but many more — all of us, of any and no gender — do not. Like the women released from Bayview, let’s join together and begin by tearing the prison down.