Leave it to Annie Leibovitz to curate an exhibit on powerful women at a former facility that incarcerated them. Leibovitz's new show, 'WOMEN: New Portraits,' is a part of Leibovitz's most enduring photo series. Her eponymous book for the series included an essay by Susan Sontag and featured women ranging from waitresses in California to then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton. The new exhibition features portraits from the book, as well as new pictures taken since the series' inception.
This exhibition, which was commissioned by UBS, stands out because of where it's situated: 550 West 20th St., located near the Chelsea Piers and sandwiched between the David Zwirner Gallery and 303 Gallery, the space was used as a women's prison until 2013. After the prison was shut down, the NoVo Foundation and Lela Gordon Group were awarded the rights to restore and develop the site as a Women's Building, which is to become, according to the foundation's official statement, "a hub of activism and engagement, with lectures, conferences, performances, and art shows" geared toward working for the rights of women and girls.
It's appropriate, then, that Leibovitz be among the first artists to infuse the space with feminist energy.
Besides photos from the ongoing project, the exhibition features photos from Leibovitz's magazine work, including the iconic cover of Rolling Stone featuring a naked John Lennon embracing his Yoko Ono, and a behind-the-scenes photo from the set of Caitlyn Jenner's Vanity Fair cover shoot.
The show, which had its premiere showing in London and has since toured Europe, Asia, and America, is curated around conversation, including a circle of chairs in the middle of the room for discussion about the images. The circle is flanked by large screens of changing photographs, with the biggest one showcasing photography from the women of the White House during the Obama administration. The photos and space itself are introduced via an essay by celebrated feminist journalist Gloria Steinem, a friend and collaborator of Leibovitz's:
"She also offers visitors a talking circle, an invitation to explore the feelings and ideas the images create. It's a long way from the hush and isolation of a museum—and I'm grateful.
We join her visual circle of women across nations, cultures, ways of living and loving."
In the room directly next to the gallery proper, visitors will find a large library with books ranging from Diane Arbus' photography collections to Marina Abramovic's new memoir. According to gallery assistant Alisha Wyzthe, the space used to be "the law library for women who were incarcerated. [Leibovitz] left it the way it was; there was nothing done to it other than adding some furniture." Wyzthe further revealed Leibovitz's hand in curating the library, pointing out that "the books there are books of her own, as well as books of people she's photographed who are friends of hers."
The irony of a women's empowerment exhibit held inside a former women's prison wasn't lost on Wyzhe. "I think it was an excellent idea," she said. "For the women who are participating and those who are coming in [to see the exhibit] because they'll know and kind of feel what the women who were incarcerated here went through."
'WOMEN: New Portraits' will show in New York until December 11th, when the collection makes its final tour stop in Zurich.