Objects have much to say about their owner. Using this idea as a starting point, photographer Henry Leutwyler spent the last 12 years building an extensive image archive of objects once owned by some of our most celebrated icons in music, art, sports, politics, and film. A selection of images from Leutwyler’s project make up the exhibition titled Document currently on view at Foley Gallery, New York.
Leutwyler is best known for his portraits of prominent people. He has photographed the likes of Iggy Pop, Steven Spielberg, Misty Copeland, Cate Blanchett, Denzel Washington, and Julia Roberts. Leutwyler approaches his new subject matter with the cool detachment of a scientist. Getting the photographs wasn’t always easy. Pouncing on every opportunity that presented itself, he sought collections of prestigious institutions such as the Smithsonian, private and personal collections, and everything in between. Depending how you look at them, the photographs could be interpreted as still lifes or forensic documents.
Archetypal possessions such as glasses, shoes, and musical instruments are grouped together to provide an interesting study in the varying personas of their famous owners. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s hip Issey Miyake sunglasses and John Lennon’s groovy gold wire-rimmed with blue lenses contrast with Gandhi’s humble wire-frame spectacles. Gene Kelly’s worn out white Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars are shown next to Michael Jackson’s studded shoes – seeming flashy footwear, except that Leutwyler chose to photograph their battered soles as a testament to the pop music legend’s dedication and hard work. While Bo Diddley’s cigar box guitar passes the legacy of rhythm and blues down to the next generation of rock ‘n’ rollers represented by Jimi Hendrix’s Fender Mustang and Janis Joplin’s Gibson acoustic.
The presentation moves from objects we more readily associate with their celebrity owners to those that never made it to public view. And it is in these images that we uncover the biggest surprises. James Dean’s black leather “Rolfs” wallet and key to room 82 of the Iroquois Hotel symbolize the only stability in the nomadic existence of a young actor whose career was skyrocketing. A poem written on an American Airlines envelope reveals boxer Sugar Ray Leonard’s interest in verse. Donald Judd’s tri-color set of American Express cards from 1991 and 1992 divulges how the artist handled his credit expenses during those years. While a red Valentine typewriter discloses Audrey Hepburn’s passion for cooking and recording recipes.
Document, the exhibition, coincides with the release of Leutwyler’s book by the same name. With just a few exceptions, Leutwyler’s subjects represent celebrities who are no longer with us. He states, “The people I was really interested in died before I could photograph them. So I thought, Let me make a list of my heroes and some villains and research what they owned.” This is a good time to note that the Charter Arms .38 caliber revolver used to shoot and kill John Lennon is also on view and 100% proceeds from the image will be donated to support the non-profit everytown for gun safety. Resulting from their cultural significance, featured objects like Charlie Chaplin’s cane and silk flower from “City Lights” and Elvis’ comb have risen to relic-like status. Taking cue, Foley Gallery made sure to include images of newly minted memorials – Muhammad Ali’s boxing shoe and training glove, James Gandolfini’s Cadillac – his favorite possession, and Prince’s “Symbol” shaped guitar.
Document is on view at Foley Gallery through January 8, 2017.