Gloria Steinem attends Annie Leibovitz’s “Women: New Portraits” Exhibition Opens In New York on November 15, 2016 at the Bayview Correctional Facility in New York City. Roy Rochlin/Getty Images/AFP
Some of the world’s most irrepressible women stare out in neat rows from the walls of Annie Leibovitz’s latest photo exhibit. Among them is Hillary Clinton, pictured above the words: “Never, never, never give up.”
The acclaimed photographer willingly admits that Clinton’s shock defeat in last week’s presidential election has cast a bit of a shadow over her travelling show, entitled simply “Women.”
“This is not how we imagined this week would turn out,” she told reporters at the gallery hosting the project — formerly a women’s prison in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood.
What was designed as an exuberant and joyful exhibit, she says, now appears more as an “emotional, sobering celebration” following the Democrat’s second failed attempt to break the highest glass ceiling of all.
The 67-year-old Leibovitz is acclaimed for decades of celebrity portraits, from a shot of Whoopi Goldberg submerged in a bathtub filled with milk, to her iconic image of a naked John Lennon wrapping himself around a clothed Yoko Ono, taken days before his assassination.
Her portrait of Clinton was a late addition to her latest project, launched in 1999 and featuring subjects from all stations of life and from all around the world.
“I am not thrilled with my picture of secretary Clinton, but in the stream of it, it works,” she said. It sits above the befitting quote on perseverance, written on a small tile that Clinton had in her State Department office.
The project took shape over the years with the help of Leibovitz’s close friend, women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem, who drew up a 20 page list of women whose portraits she simply had to take.
– Like the ocean –
“This is like photographing the ocean — a work in progress,” said Leibovitz, immediately recognizable for her unruly mane of long gray hair.
The project “keeps growing, it’s not definitive,” she said, adding that she hopes to photograph German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the notoriously camera-shy British writer J.K. Rowling some day.
Leibovitz first took Clinton’s picture in the 1990s, back when she was first lady in Bill Clinton’s White House, a portrait that appeared in Vanity Fair.
With the former secretary of state seemingly poised to claim the US presidency, Leibovitz thought it would be a fine idea to retake the picture.
“She was not in this wall until this show. I want to take a more updated photograph,” explained Leibovitz, who was encouraged in the long-running project by her late partner Susan Sontag, a well-known writer who died of cancer in 2004.
Leibovitz’s good friend Steinem, one of the founders of the National Organization of Women (NOW) and the country’s best-known feminist, joined her in presenting the exhibition.
Steinem said she refuses to see Trump’s ascension as a permanent setback for women’s rights despite the president-elect’s history of sexist comments and his checkered record towards women.
“I am concerned, I am worried… but two million more people voted for Clinton than for Trump,” said Steinem. Clinton’s actual lead in the popular vote stands at just over one million.
“We’ll not go back,” said the 82-year-old Steinem.
– ‘Sisters’ –
Steinem’s own photo is next to Clinton’s on a wall that features such prominent women as Washington’s UN ambassador Samantha Power, Vogue chief editor Anna Wintour, Olympic swimming champion Katie Ledecky and groundbreaking tennis sisters Venus and Serena Williams.
Leibovitz said she saw the women in her giant mural as “sisters to each other. They bond to each other… They need one another.”
Not everyone in the traveling exhibit, which wraps its US stay up December 11, is a household name.
There is also a striking portrait of Mexican lawyer Andrea Medina Rosas, a lawyer and activist at the Mexican Network of Women in Ciudad Juarez, who works to seek justice for murdered and missing women.
And none of the women are there by accident, said Leibovitz, who began her career as a photojournalist for Rolling Stone magazine before going on to Vanity Fair and Vogue.
“I have never been good as a street photographer,” she said. “I want to know the person’s story.”