The former Tanjong Pagar railway station, with its sweeping high ceilings and exposed brick walls, is now home to a travelling exhibition of world-renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz titled “WOMEN: New Portraits”. Earlier this year, it was shown in an old power station in London, while the San Francisco edition was in a former US Army airfield. Perhaps they’re odd venue choices, considering that her photos are usually found in polished museums or glossy magazine pages. But a visit to the exhibition will reveal why she’s chosen to present her long-documented series on women in an “anti-museum”, as Leibovitz dubs it.
17 years after launching her 1999 book titled “Women“, this new exhibition is an extension of the book and reflects the changes in the roles of women today. New portraits – Sheryl Sandberg, Lena Dunham, Gloria Steinheim, Amy Winehouse and Misty Copeland – are displayed on what seems like a makeshift pinboard in the middle of the railway station, complete with thumb tacks and string. Other images are displayed on three large digital panels that switch out photos every ten seconds. Her technical skill is astounding, but what’s most impressive is how she’s captured the complexity and the very essence of the women in front of the camera lens. It’s also an ongoing project: Blank spaces have been left as she plans to shoot Kim Kardashian and Venus and Serena Williams next.
In Singapore for the opening today, she chats about the exhibition, the art of photography in an Instagram era, and how women should be represented:
How the project began
“It started with these photographs I took of show-girls in Las Vegas. It brought up all these questions of women and how they were dressing up as women. What do we look like, and what are our roles? (In the original 1999 book) there were photos of farmers, coal miners, homeless women, then-first lady Hilary Clinton, a woman on death row – women from all walks of life. I then thought of women whom I hadn’t had the opportunity to photograph. I immediately thought of (American feminist and social activist) Gloria Steinhem, who helped us with the ideas (for this exhibition). She was an incredible inspiration – and she’s 82 years old!”
The cult of the celebrity
“When I was young, I felt that my subjects were lucky to be in my pictures. Now I am very aware of what I am doing – I’ve done this for 45 years. My work is a look at who we are and how we live. I never forget that. That’s why I am interested in such a mix of subjects – from fashion to people like Steinheim. When I take a photograph I want it to last a long time. I’ve never been interested purely in the celebrity; I am interested in what they do. It’s about telling a story about someone. I am not just interested in what they look like.”
On that infamous Vanity Fair cover of Caitlyn Jenner
“When I photographed Caitlyn, we weren’t thinking about the magazine cover. We were thinking about helping this person in the next part of her life. It was a big deal (to see how) the world responded to it in such a good way. I had no doubt in my mind that she would be featured in this show. As Gloria Steinhem says, there are never just two sides. It’s far more complicated than that – there are a few more things going on. It’s a photograph that keeps us on our toes.”
Being a photographer in the iPhone age
“When I talk to students, those from LaSalle College for the Arts for example, I am very tough with them. I told them, “Don’t wait for someone to give you a job. Do what matters to you.” Being a photographer is not a dead art just because everyone is now taking pictures. You have to really think about presentation and editing. It’s not like taking pictures on your iPhone – of course it’s wonderful that you have a camera in your pocket at all times, but it’s different.”
How representations of women have changed
“There are so many looks to us, so much more than what we see in magazines. For some reason that was a big surprise, and it should not have been like that. I think a big difference (in women) today is their sense of confidence. Women have a better sense of who they are, and are presenting themselves in a very strong way.” Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, April 29-May 22, free admission
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