In the 1970s and early 1980s, Annie Leibovitz made an art of taking portraits of music legends for Rolling Stone. She went on to become one of America's best-known portrait photographers. Four years ago, Leibovitz, 54, decided to go back to her roots -- something of a "midlife crisis," she jokes -- and shoot portraits for a new book and exhibit of photos of rock, blues, soul, folk, country, and rap artists. Called American Music, the show runs through Jan. 19 at Seattle's rock museum, The Experience Music Project (emplive.com), then moves to The Hospital, a gallery of music art in London, and returns to the U.S. this summer to Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
Leibovitz photographed such luminaries as Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, and Neil Young, and blues and soul legends such as John Lee Hooker, Aretha Franklin, and Etta James. She also got shots of younger artists such as Beck, Norah Jones, and P. Diddy. With each photo, she tries to take an image that matches a musician's style and genre. "You want it to look like their music," Leibovitz says, as she walks through the show.
That's what you see in a shot of B.B. King. He sits back with a broad smile, his guitar named "Lucille" in his massive hands. "You can almost see the note he's playing by the way his face moves," Leibovitz says.
She captures contemporary R&B artist Mary J. Blige, looking ordinary in a fur-trimmed leather coat and hat. The shot came after Leibovitz had already taken several rolls of film of Blige in the studio. Blige had already removed her makeup and headed for the door when Leibovitz stopped her for just a few more pictures.
Perhaps the most stirring photo is that of troubled Beach Boy Brian Wilson. The man whose falsetto voice once defined surfer music has long struggled with depression. Leibovitz shot him in 2000 next to a Beverly Hills pool. Storm clouds gather behind him, and his pot belly pops out of a robe. "He functions, but it's on the edge," says Leibovitz. "To see Brian, it's a little painful."
A POIGNANT PAIR. For Leibovitz, the most moving shots are a pair of photos of Johnny Cash -- one with daughter Rosanne and a second with his wife, June Carter Cash. She took the pictures at a 2001 family get-together. Cash, who had been in and out of the hospital prior to the gathering, was having trouble seeing. He sits in an old rocking chair on a porch, a guitar on his knee and a vacant stare on his face. Barefoot, in jeans and a tank top, Rosanne accompanies him. Leibovitz says they were singing traditional songs such as Amazing Grace. In another shot, June rests her head on Johnny's shoulder. Within two years, both June and Johnny were dead. The photos are riveting -- and another example of how Leibovitz captures music through her lens.
By Jay Greene