Famous rock photographer Annie Leibovitz’s photo exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Art, “American Music,” running through Jan. 7, is significantly skewed by one of the most important – and rarely noticed by the uninformed – aspects of art exhibition: curation. Just as film critics place sizeable weight on the distinction between actors and scripts, directing and acting, so does an art exhibit demand that viewers scrutinize the curator. Case in point? “American Music.”

Steven Neff
Steven Neff
Steven Neff
Steven Neff
Steven Neff

On top of such a potentially esoteric grievance is the more accessible issue of legitimacy. Can one artist fully capture “American” music? Our culture is fraught with cultural authenticity – we are the “melting pot,” after all. But Americans can claim with certainty a uniqueness of musical expression. Just as the French Impressionists took this nation by storm, jazz and blues music avalanched through Europe. Extending from that framework is the issue of authenticity – is it “American”? Is it “legit”? So on and so forth. Whether fair or not, Leibovitz’s “American Music” is loaded with anticipation before you even enter the museum, and the simple, straightforward title “American Music” belies the significance of the exhibit.

The exhibit’s title makes no presuppositions and leaves the viewer to found his expectations on the actual content. And the result is surprising: “American Music” is both a legitimate

tribute and a letdown.

Neatly divided into six rooms following a rough chronology, the exhibit begins appropriately enough with the Mississippi Delta. Quotes from Leibovitz hover above each room, and the first – for the opening room titled “American Roots Music and the Folk Tradition” – states simply: “It seemed like a good idea to start at the Mississippi Delta, since that’s where the music that meant so much to me started.” One can’t place enough significance on the blues tradition as the basis for American musical expression, and Leibovitz fully appreciates that fact.

Without diminishing their stature, Leibovitz’s portraits of such legends as B.B. King, Pete Seeger (recently honored in Bruce Springsteen’s We Shall Overcome: the Seeger Sessions), Othar Turner and Eddie Cotton, Jr. (among several others) are elegiac in their simplicity. It’s almost impossible for a justly accomplished photographer to capture such iconic figures without letting the culture, influence and legacy of the blues take center stage – and Leibovitz certainly succeeds at this.

In an exhibit full of portraits, it’s rather ironic that perhaps the best image contains not a soul: “Highway 61.” As legend has it, somewhere near the intersection of highways 61 and 49, Robert Johnson – a legend in need of no portrait to legitimize his legacy – sold his soul to the devil in return for his guitar chops. Even though most of Leibovitz’s large-scale images appear overwrought and trivial, “Highway 61” and its introspective silence demands attention. The minimal composition of the highway diminishing into the horizon is amply weighted by the surrounding portraits – this is where it all began, where the world’s rawest form expression, the blues, was birthed. Here are her children.

Leibovitz’s pared down approach flows well into the next section, “Country and Western Music.” With the exception of an enormously kitschy, Rolling Stone-esque portrait of Dolly Parton, the segment works well as a counterpoint to the largely black makeup of the first section. Willie Nelson’s portrait, one of the exhibit’s press photos, is an incredible display of artistic virtuosity. And with a touching image of Johnny Cash in his late years with his daughter and grandchildren, “Country and Western Music” holds fast to the exhibit’s framework: the development of “American” music, the role of its key players and its future.

The third section, “An ‘American Tapestry’: Jazz, Gospel, Rhythm and Blues and Soul,” is without a doubt the cream of the exhibit. Granted, I came to this exhibit with a bare bones understanding of jazz and its context in American history, and so regardless of the adjoining plaques, the images of such heroes as Max Roach, Etta James and Booker T. Jones struck a deep, personal chord. These guys were the next vanguard. After Robert Johnson, Leadbelly, Son House and Charley Patton (and, oh lord, so many others), these were the musicians who took “American” music to the next level. Leibovitz’s image of the Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church Choir – a New Orleans church famous for both the starting point of Mahalia Jackson and the fact that it is still standing after Hurricane Katrina – is breathtaking. The women are suffused with grainy light, the light of faith, and regardless of the easy stereotypes of black church culture, the photograph easily carries its own weight.

Immediately to its left is an image of the New Birth Brass Band, a contemporary New Orleans group mixing funk, hip hop, gospel soul, blues and traditional New Orleans music. In one deft juxtaposition, the products of contemporary expression are rooted in the foundation of the past. All of a sudden, we have Norah Jones. One very big Norah Jones. Regardless of the fact that Feels Like Home helped me through a tough breakup, she shouldn’t be anywhere near an image of a reunions of Stax label musicians that includes Booker T. Jones and Isaac Hayes or a portrait of Dr. John. Not only is she in their proximity, but also her portrait is the largest in the section. A question of authenticity hangs over the room, and completely blows up in the following section, “Contemporary Music and the Search for Authenticity.”

In one room, we have black musicians. In the next, only white. Quite simply, the issue of legitimacy is laid bare for all to judge. And yet the section’s informational plaque does not mention race at all. Not only is this problematic in the progression of the exhibit, but another complication comes into play: art for art’s sake, or art for the exhibit’s context? Duane Eddy and Les Paul are duly included, as are images of Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt and Tom Waits. But John Frusciante? Granted, his portrait is brilliant – a nurturing take on a man with a heavy past. But should he be here? With Tom Waits? This is where the exhibit breaks down. All of a sudden, instead of using music as a cultural lens, we have a scattershot selection of popular musicians.

“Contemporary Music after 1980: Hip Hop and Alternative Music” is the following section, and the exhibit’s avalanche towards mediocrity and beyond continues. Shots of The Roots, Missy Elliott and Mary J. Blige look like Rolling Stone cutouts – hell, maybe they really are – and do nothing to emphasize the cultural significance of hip hop. The Roots are setup in a Hollywood-fake New York City, and we’re supposed to take away the same meaning as a close up Max Roach? The cultural significance is falling through our fingers. And it doesn’t stop.

“Musicians in Detroit” caps off the exhibit with an extremely disappointing banality. Why is Aretha Franklin confined the corner? Not to short-shift the White Stripes, but why the hell do they take center stage in the Motor City? The exhibit’s momentum from the first half falls to rock bottom with the portrait of Jack and Meg White dressed up as circus performers. In the rest of the exhibit, not one single image is so blatantly staged. Leibovitz herself is quoted: “It seemed to me that a concert was the least interesting place to photograph a musician . I liked rehearsals, backrooms, hotel rooms . any place by the stage.” Unfortunately that philosophy, which worked so well for part of the exhibit, completely fails in the latter half, as the show dwindles into a parade of eye candy.

Leibovitz employs the full weight of her craft throughout the exhibit – each photo, regardless of context, is masterfully executed. But the context is what allows individual photos to ascend their individual frames (e.g. “Highway 61”). But the viewer, after presented with an enormous wealth of culture in the first few sections, is completely let down by the end. Perhaps Leibovitz would have organized it otherwise. Perhaps not. Perhaps it’s asking too much of one artist to portray American culture in the context of contemporary music. But both the artists and the curator could have made a better attempt.

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