Mary J. Blige had completed her session with iconic photographer Annie Leibovitz and was preparing to leave the studio when Leibovitz snapped one more image. Wearing little makeup and a big floppy hat, Blige appears both familiar and strange; her glassy eyes hint at her then-struggle with drugs and alcohol. It's a portrait of the artist as a young and vulnerable woman, arresting precisely because unstaged, unvarnished images of famous people are so rarely seen.
Unfortunately, it's one of just a few surprises in American Music, the collection of Leibovitz photos currently on display at the Rock Hall.
Leibovitz traveled cross-country for the book project from which more than 60 images were selected, and the exhibition is a fairly comprehensive overview of American music history. Her talent for creating flawless images is legendary, and these portraits of famous and not-so-famous musicians demonstrate why. In a shot from 2002, Eminem, posed between noticeably larger black rappers Dr. Dre and Rakim, holds his own; Leibovitz's carefully framed and lit portrait acknowledges Em's position in a black-dominated genre without letting that sometimes controversial fact overwhelm the image. Though almost absurdly pale and slight in comparison to the others, he radiates the confidence and toughness that are essential to his public persona.
Even more image-conscious is her portrait of Hank Williams III, one of the few color shots in the collection. The hard-living grandson of Hank Williams here epitomizes the virile cowboy; he sits on an old Cadillac in the requisite hat, boots, and torn jeans (sporting a pot-leaf belt buckle), and aims a gun at an unseen target to his left. Like a seasoned publicist, Leibovitz knows exactly how stars want to be perceived and how to best communicate that image.
Her roots, however, are in photojournalism. In the '70s, she shot for Rolling Stone. Her work, including a famous image of a passed-out Keith Richards, helped shape the look and feel of the magazine. But her foray into celebrity photography taught her all about the sneaky little fame-game: All she had to do was make the Stones look really crazy and cool, and everyone was happy.
Since then, her sleek images of the wealthy and influential have fit right into -- and maybe even contributed to -- the glossy celebrity culture we know today. Though ostensibly showing stars in their natural habitats, most of Leibovitz's images are carefully arranged. In that sense, she is not unlike a wedding photographer, posing and cajoling her subjects into idealized versions of themselves, staging photographs so meticulously that they appear unstaged. The downside is that she rarely reveals anything new or unexpected about her subjects. Case in point: Brassy rapper Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott is practically dripping in fur, lip gloss, jewelry and attitude, just as she typically appears on her albums and in her videos.
To be fair, without access, Leibovitz might be just another paparazzo. And the price of access is a certain complicity in the care and maintenance of fame. Even more fickle than celebrities are the people who celebrate them.
And perhaps not coincidentally, Leibovitz has become fairly famous herself. After being shot by her in 2003, Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld reportedly gushed to a friend: "Guess who photographed me yesterday? Amy Leibovitz!"