Nestled among the wharf buildings and imitation flats in Wapping is the Wapping Hydraulic Power Station where, until 7th February, you can find Annie Leibovitz’s Women exhibition.
I’d never been to Wapping and I really enjoyed discovering it. I loved the architecture, its quietness, position right on the river, busy pubs and narrow main street. Wapping Hydraulic Power Station is a fantastic space and seems to have undergone the same sort of renaissance as many other power stations and gas holder sites across London. It is the former home of the Wapping Project which showcased several fashion photography exhibitions and a restaurant space. This Annie Leibovitz exhibition marks its first major arts use since the Wapping Project recently vacated the building.
Wapping Hydraulic Power Station is undoubtedly a London gem. I pray that this building isn’t going to go the same way as Battersea or Lots Road. It is cavernous, clad in red brick and mud-spattered white tiles with elevated, huge windows. Metal remnants and piping of the original power station usages are littered among the rooms. My good friend and I went after work on a Friday and it was pleasingly dark inside, the exhibition lit by retro-style lamps and enormous screens scrolling Leibovitz’s work.
The focus of this exhibition feels like the screen images. There’s a fair amount of seating for people to linger and watch the scrolls of Leibovitz’s most famous and not-so-famous images. One of the most striking was of a young and stripped back Venus and Serena Williams in black and white. The seating is contained by three sets of screens and one wall of prints where you can spot Aung San Suu Kyi, Meryl Streep, Malala’s autograph and probably Leibovitz’s most well-known recent piece: Caitlyn Jenner. This exhibition reads like a “who’s who” of unbelievably famous women. But it also seemed clear to me why these women allow themselves to be photographed by Leibovitz. Not having seen much of her work before, I felt like she really gets the best out of her subject. They all look so confident, but vulnerable, and real.
The second room in the exhibition is in a smaller chamber with a long wooden table on top of which are many, many Annie Leibovitz coffee table books and other art compilations. Spindly chairs are scattered around to take a seat and flick through these publications under the glow of minimalist lamps. There’s also a couple of copies of ridiculously large photography books featuring Leibovitz’s fashion shoots. This room feels like it’s more about Leibovitz’s full spectrum of work including fashion photography and Rolling Stone work. One of the most obvious examples of this are that there are lots of accessible pictures of men rather than just women as the “Women” title of exhibition would seem to indicate. I didn’t much enjoy this room because it was very crowded with people rifling through books quite frantically. I’m not sure anyone I observed was really taking in any of the work, which felt like a shame.
Yes, for me, the best part of the exhibition is in the main room. I enjoyed the lull of watching the scrolling photographs and the opportunity to see Leibovitz’s work outside of portraiture. I also loved the airiness and expanse of the main room juxtaposed against the omnipresent photographs. At the back of the room is Leibovitz’s famous portrait of the Queen which is the only digital static image. It’s like she’s watching over us all as we admire the many other great and good women that Leibovitz has been lucky enough to work with.
I would really recommend that you spend an hour at this exhibition if you can. It’s difficult not to be impressed by the sheer power that Leibovitz clearly commands in this field and to appreciate the common thread that connects these immensely famous women. I didn’t find it informative, but I enjoyed seeing first-hand the images I’ve subconsciously drunk in through my exposure to the media and thinking about them in a new way, without the burden of surrounding words colouring my perception of the person in the photograph.
You can find more information about the exhibition here.