Annie Liebovitz: The Early Years, 1970–1983: Archive Project #1

Grande Halle, Arles; 03/07/17 to 24/09/17

This, by far the biggest show in the festival, is an overwhelming collection that would have benefited from some curatorial discernment. The catalogue claims it contains 5000 images and I’m in no position to argue. It’s massive.


It is, in my view, far too big, and each section has too many images. I get the idea of unearthing an archive and showing previously unseen images, but there are hundreds in each section when dozens (at most) would do. It’s a triumph of quantity over quality. The images are closely packed, mostly printed quite small and mounted informally behind wall-sized plates of glass.

Once you get over the tsunami-style presentation the images themselves are interesting and revealing. She was, in my opinion, a far more interesting photographer over this reportage period than she later became as a portraitist. There is an energy and an urgency to her 1970s work that she didn’t recapture in her later career. In short, I prefer Rolling Stone Liebovitz to Vanity Fair Liebovitz.

Her work over this period covers political unrest, alternative lifestyles, rock and roll, pop culture and several hybrids of all of the above – she rode the zeitgeist and she got closer to her subjects than most, as it seemed that the boundaries between journalists and subjects were fuzzier back then. It feels more like an insider’s view than it should, if that makes sense.


The best section by far for me was the wall dedicated to the 1973 Rolling Stones US tour. It has a few hundred fantastically observed onstage and backstage moments that really capture the decadence and surreality of the 1970s rock star lifestyle. I found myself poring over these images for the longest time, which led me to the realisation that I only thought there were too many images in the sections where I wasn’t already interested in the subject matter! I would happily have paid to see a specific Liebiovitz/Stones exhibition.

Oddly, the show doesn’t really finish where you’d expect it to, on the cusp of her change in direction from reportage to portraiture, but extends ahead and includes a little of her early 1980s celebrity portrait work. This felt like it belonged more at the start of Archive Project #2.

It’s a really interesting show and I’m glad I saw her early work as first of all I wasn’t familiar with it and secondly it surprised me how much I prefer it to her more famous work.

I found myself comparing it to the Joel Meyerowitz show, as they are both cases of big names showing early work. This wins hands down for a couple of reasons: first, her early work is, in my opinion, more interesting than her more famous later work, while I think the opposite is true for Meyerowitz; secondly, her show may have had far too much in it, but that is, on balance, a better flaw than too little.

Main takeaway

If you can’t edit yourself, find someone who can! Too much imagery can make it look like you’re either indecisive or lazy, and places the onus on the viewer to find a way through the mass of images.