This article is part of the Fine Arts & Exhibits special section on the art world’s expanded view of what art is and who can make it.
Annie Leibovitz often says she is obsessed. In a recent video interview from her Manhattan studio, she related how obsessed she was with space exploration. She also described her obsession with Abraham Lincoln and how she “cleared rooms” one Thanksgiving by incessantly talking about the Civil War and Gettysburg. But most of all, she is obsessed with photography, which has been her calling for more than 50 years. It requires drive, she said, and “you have to be obsessed.”
All of these passions — and more — appear in “Annie Leibovitz at Work,” a show of about 300 photographs at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark. The exhibition, which runs through Jan. 29 before traveling to other museums, is unlike any Ms. Leibovitz, 74, has ever done.
But it started small. When she first arrived in Bentonville in 2021, she was there only to shoot a commissioned portrait of the museum’s founder, Alice L. Walton, daughter of the retailer Sam Walton and an heir to the Walmart fortune. When Ms. Walton suggested that Ms. Leibovitz might want to exhibit at the museum as well, Ms. Leibovitz replied that she was more interested in making new work than in displaying what she had already done.
“I said, ‘You know, what would be really great is, do you want to support me?’” Ms. Leibovitz recalled. “‘Let me take more photographs, and then maybe we can make a show of that.’”
Crystal Bridges agreed, becoming the first museum to commission Ms. Leibovitz to shoot photographs for its permanent collection. (The museum, which contracted to acquire 25 prints, declined to reveal the purchase price.) To Ms. Leibovitz’s delight, she could determine the subjects. She made lists of people and things that she would like to “catch up on,” she said, that weren’t necessarily timely but that excited her.
She longed, for instance, to capture her own images of the James Webb Space Telescope’s galactic odysseys. She wanted to photograph Stacey Abrams, the Georgia activist and author, and her family, even though Ms. Abrams was not then running for office. (Ms. Abrams readily complied, responding by email to a query, “we are grateful to have been part of this project and the legacy it can leave.”) Ms. Leibovitz was also eager to make a portrait of her rabbi, Angela Warnick Buchdahl of Central Synagogue in Manhattan. And she was determined to shoot the billionaire Elon Musk, who proved exhaustingly elusive until her studio tried a new tactic.
“We called his mother, and then he was there, like, literally, the next day,” Ms. Leibovitz said, laughing.
Although all of these new images were the impetus for “Annie Leibovitz at Work,” they are just part of the photography on display. The museum’s devotion to education ultimately inspired Ms. Leibovitz to trace her entire career in the show, which occupies five rooms and 5,800 square feet.
The recent photographs, which include portraits of Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson of the United States Supreme Court and the television journalist Rachel Maddow, appear at the exhibition’s end, projected onto four ceiling-high screens. The new pictures are mixed with older ones that appear on the screens simultaneously in what “really is a dance,” Ms. Leibovitz said, at different intervals and in varying combinations.
“Here, she is able to introduce time,” said Alejo Benedetti, the show’s curator and the museum’s acting curator of contemporary art, as he conducted a video walk-through of the space. And, he added, “she’s playing with this new element — new to her, I should say — in terms of how she is activating these stories.”
As the images cycle over about 21 minutes, the author Salman Rushdie is shown healthy and relaxed among friends and supporters; he also appears in a much later, more tension-filled portrait obviously taken after the brutal attack in 2022 that blinded him in one eye.
That juxtaposition is an example of creating “relationships from the new work with other imagery,” Ms. Leibovitz said. She hopes to add several more works as her show continues — a freedom that the museum has not accorded any other artist.
“It’s not a traditional exhibition,” said Olivia Walton, the chair of Crystal Bridges’ board, who is married to Sam Walton’s grandson Tom. A typical show is “the curator’s interpretation of the artist’s body of work,” she said. “This is much more directly Annie speaking. This is Annie by Annie.”
The results could easily have been called “The Making of a Photographer.” The exhibition’s first section includes 1970s and ’80s images from Ms. Leibovitz’s “Driving Series,” shot within a car while she was working for Rolling Stone. (The drivers? People like Tom Wolfe, Sissy Spacek, Bruce Springsteen and Carole King.) All the show’s images that are not on screens are simply tacked onto fiber boards, among them a marked contact sheet with shots of the launch of Apollo 17, the last manned mission to the moon, in 1972. The exhibition even includes a reading room, with books Ms. Leibovitz chose.
“The first couple of rooms are really classrooms,” she said. They are places, she said, for her to talk about “looking back at my work,” directed to “a young person who might be interested in photography.”
None of the show’s best-known images are sized or hung for special effect. Off to one side is the famous 1980 portrait of a nude John Lennon, his body tenderly clinging to Yoko Ono’s, taken just hours before he was shot and killed. One long wall features other signature Leibovitz pictures — Meryl Streep in white makeup; a nude, pregnant Demi Moore — tacked up alongside lesser-known images and what she calls her “still lives” from her “Pilgrimage” series, which include Virginia Woolf’s desk, Thoreau’s bed and Lincoln’s top hat and bloodstained gloves from the night he was assassinated.
In mixing such images, the show is neither strictly chronological nor “trying to focus on the iconic moments,” Mr. Benedetti said. “It’s trying to focus on how these different photographs are in conversation.”
Most, however, are in some sense portraits, and they illustrate Ms. Leibovitz’s evolution from a photojournalist to a more conceptual artist. Never content to shoot in a studio, she meticulously stages her photographs.
“I do feel the portrait has its own genre,” Ms. Leibovitz said. “And I certainly have, I guess, my own style. I mean, I’m not standing behind a building with the long lens, you know, trying to sneak a picture.” Instead, her method is “definitely a collaboration between myself and the person having the photograph taken,” she explained. “And it’s very psychological.”
When Ms. Leibovitz photographed Rabbi Buchdahl, for instance, she chose not to portray her in the synagogue. “I’m not the typical rabbi,” Rabbi Buchdahl said in a phone interview. “I’m the daughter of a Korean Buddhist and an American Jew.” The portrait shows her barefoot and in a dress, standing by a lake in Connecticut where she frequently composes her sermons. The rabbi finds the image both challenging and deeply spiritual.
Ms. Leibovitz “kind of read my essence and somehow translated that, not onto a canvas but onto film,” Rabbi Buchdahl said.
But while the exhibition covers more than half a century, Ms. Leibovitz maintains that it is not a retrospective, a term she seems to feel is too elegiac.
“It’s not a stop,” she said. “It’s not an exclamation point. It doesn’t have a, you know. …” Ms. Leibovitz’s voice trailed off. “Maybe,” she said, laughing, “I should have called it ‘In Progress.’”
Always working, she is still obsessed.