Annie Leibovitz at the Legion of Honor

For Mother’s Day, I wanted nothing else than to visit one of my favorite art museums, the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, and see the Annie Leibovitz photography exhibit with my family. With gas prices being has high as they are, a trip to San Francisco is becoming a treat. I’d also upgraded my San Jose Art Museum membership to include North American Reciprocal Museum (NARM) membership, and I wanted to test it out. I used to have memberships at both the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, as well as the San Jose Art Museum, but the NARM option seemed to give me the chance to have both on one card, and help out the San Jose Art Museum, which I only wish were bigger and better funded.

Well, the NARM program turned out to be, well, not quite as cool as I’d hoped it would be. I’d been used to sailing into the Legion of Honor in the membership line, but now I found out I’d have to wait in the long tourist line. It was like going to a friend’s house but being turned away from the front door and being told to go in the carriage entrance. And while my admission to the regular museum was covered, we had to pay a surcharge for the special Annie Leibovitz exhibition. I didn’t dare test to find out if the NARM benefit of getting a member’s discount in the gift shop would work or not.

We did enjoy the Annie Leibovitz exhibit. Her studio portraits of celebrities, statesmen and -women, and even more ordinary people were every bit as awesome as we could hope to see. In the context of the classical painted portraits upstairs, they were even more powerful. When photography came along, a good point to ask was whether they would make portrait painting obsolete. They never did, but a good Annie Leibovitz photograph is exactly what portrait artists accomplished. Her photographs incorporate the context of the person’s station, the setting, larger than life costuming, and an expression that looks unposed. Some people are just sprawled or standing, but when she uses some staging, the results could also be cleverly dramatic, like Chris Rock in minstrel “white” face, or The White Stripes dressed and staged like a knife-throwing act. There was always a sense of strength in her subjects, especially when her subject was someone like a president or someone in his cabinet. Here is one of her portraits of the Queen of England which we saw:

(I didn’t take a picture of the picture, BTW. This photo comes with the AP newswires, and you can find it elsewhere online.)

What I was disappointed in was her landscape portraits and family pictures, which were included. The family pictures were really nothing special, and captured casual moments in an unspiring way (here’s a series of pictures of my mom with her back turned to me as she does something at the sink!) And Annie Leibovitz: you ain’t no landscape artist. Most of the landscape pictures were blurry, like they had been shot out of a helicopter at a low shutter speed: surprise, they were! And that seems to be her landscape photography style: the pictures she takes are the travel pictures I’d throw away.

I was also hoping for an idea of how Annie Leibovitz’ photographic style had evolved over time, but most of the pictures were from within the last decade, and none dated back before 1988. It was obviously a promotion for Leibovitz’ latest book.

I was happy to tour my favorite paintings and statues upstairs again. And even if that’s all the membership I am entitled to, I’m happy with it. It seems every time I see those paintings I can look at them in a new way, and the museum switches them up from time to time too. Now they’ve added some of those fragile looking Dale Chihuly sculptures to the museum. The San Jose Art Museum has had some for quite a while, and I have to say, no matter where I see them, they make me nervous.

We went outside to have a picnic lunch. I had my camera with me, so I decided to play Annie Leibovitz. Her style of family photography seems to be to always have a camera with you. Maybe there is a subconscious element that a photographer brings to their photography style. I’m certainly not Annie Leibovitz in talent or style, but my photographs had a unique marker I hadn’t expected. When I reviewed my “film” I noticed a lot of the pictures had a surreal element I hadn’t even tried for. I do love Salvador Dali and Federico Fellini, but have such artists changed my perceptions, even subconsciously?

Here is Kelly (in my sweatshirt, which she put on because she was cold) walking towards the cypress which she wants to climb:

Here is my attempt at Annie Leibovitz’s a-picture-of-my-family-while-they’re-turned-away-from-me pictures:

Here is something more like a Leibovitz portrait, though my subjects insisted on remaining clothed in public and dampish San Francisco weather:

And last, here is a picture of an art patron who has been overcome with all the fine art she’s just seen and had to pass out. Either that or she’s been skewered by the statue, and the docents have discreetly made her look like she’s just sleeping so as not to create a fuss.

So I had a great mother’s day, and fun with my family, too.

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