Nick Hackworth

Annie Leibovitz, The Hospital

Essays & Reviews Evening Standard

Annie Leibovitz made her name in the Seventies with Rolling Stone magazine, for whom she produced a steady stream of iconic portraits of the pop, rock and public figures of the day. Images such as John and Yoko in a Hug, taken two hours before Lennon was shot dead in 1980, have made her one of the world’s most celebrated photographers.

Since then, she has enjoyed a rare combination of commercial, critical and popular success, and taken on a range of projects, from the corporate to the more purely artistic. Her latest work, American Music, is a book of portraits of American musicians, shot over the past four years — a project inspired by her desire to return to her original subject with a “mature eye”. The exhibition at The Hospital, a shining new complex in Covent Garden with a gallery and recording studios, includes around 70 photographs from the book.

It is a pictorial roll-call of musical mega-stars: Puff Daddy, Aretha Franklin, John Lee Hooker, Eminem, Johnny Cash, Beck, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Dr Dre, the White Stripes and more. The faces and the names, and the music attached to them are familiar, but collectively the images conspire to conjure something of the vastness of American culture. They amount to a particular, though fragmentary, portrait of a nation. Each one of Leibovitz’s subjects, whether blues musician or country singer from the South, traditional Mexican musician from Texas or new-wave Seattle punk, is a living, symbolic representation of a lifestyle aspired to, and the embodiment of a dream.

This is amplified by Leibovitz’s desire to capture authenticity with her camera, to capture the essence of each musician. So here we have a simple shot of Dolly Parton, lying on the grass in her home town, Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, staring dreamily into the sky. We have Johnny Cash strumming his guitar on the porch with his daughter and grandchildren. Hip-hop outfit the Roots play on a Philadelphia street corner, LA slacker Ryan Adams sits, guitar under arm, on a dishevelled bed in a cheap Hollywood hotel. DJ Shadow is in a bedroom in California, while rap-star Nas is pictured on the steps of his childhood home in New York.

These are images of homes and origins, with no hint of the packaging, publicity and products that lie behind Leibovitz’s subjects. This visual selectivity is perhaps the paradoxical but inevitable result of working in a country and an industry whose commercial power and manipulation of images and lifestyle aspirations is so powerful as to have disrupted our very notions of what is authentic. Nevertheless, these romantic pictures are captivating, and even moving, carrying as they do the deep empathy of the photographer for her subject.

Annie Leibovitz’s American Music is at The Hospital, 24 Endell Street, WC2, 20 Feb-9 May, Monday to Saturday 10am-10pm. Sunday 12-8pm. Information: 020 7170 9100 .