Monday, 22 February 2016


The tall towers of Wapping Hydraulic Power station loom imposingly over the road but still you would be forgiven if you passed right by the entrance to the latest Annie Leibovitz exhibition. The only giveaway is the light grey flag hanging majestically from one of said red brick towers, fluttering in the light breeze. There’s no mass of crowds nor are there the usual logistical annoyances to enter an exhibition. A quick chat to a security guard, a downing of the coffee, a few steps down what appears to be an old fire escape and you find yourself immediately in the heart of the exhibition.

The Unexpected

Which isn’t difficult. The exhibition itself is tiny, compact I guess you could call it, and limited to a square area in the main room: one chipboard decorated with a few printouts of the photos and three giant TV screens, two showing slideshows and one that never changes, simply showing the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, gazing regally off to a point in the distance. These four rectangles form the sides to the square inside which twenty chairs are arranged in a ‘talking circle’ providing visitors with a space in which to happily discuss the art around them.

But this is London. So not much talking was happening within the circle. Nonetheless, despite the initial let down at the demureness of the exhibition, Gloria Steinem’s introduction examined the nature of it in beautiful and passionate prose. Steinem herself is recognised as one of the greatest spokespeople for women and so it seemed very apt that she had written the invitation to us all.

And it was gender that was at the very core of this exhibition, explicitly cited in the title but also never downplayed by Steinem, neither in her words nor by Leibovitz in her extraordinarily powerful shots. But as Steinem said: “No notion as limited as gender can account for all the truths in this exhibit.”

Much More Than Gender

And she was right. Although every portrait was of a woman, the exhibition was not solely aimed at one gender over another. There were more poignant issues at its heart, like the four portraits of dancing girls, in their regular day clothes, holding their children, tacked next to photos of them in their stage outfits, all feathers and sequins and topless pride.

The portraits of the women were printed simply, either in A3 or A4, pinned to the cork board or hung up with string. This was the greatest sadness of the exhibition. Roughly thirty portraits of women who were both recognisable and incredible were pinned to this board. All of them were spectacular but none was large enough, not by half. The extraordinary light that Leibovitz harnesses and uses to photograph her subjects is lost in a picture that small. But, although the portraits were small, this almost made them more real and more raw, capturing not the women’s fame and fortune but their reality, the side to them that we as viewers could relate to.

Leibovitz took a power station and filled it with the worlds of incredible women. She brought her subjects to life within a space that did not seem capable of holding life. She spoke of gender in a powerful but not excessive way and she spoke to the viewer, to every single person in that power station. To use Steinem’s introductory words: “everything alive is both universal and unique. Including me. Including you.”

Annie Leibovitz 
WOMEN: New Portraits @ Wapping Hydraulic Power Station

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