Annie Leibovitz's Pilgrimage
By the door of the entrance into “Pilgrimage,” a new exhibition of photographs by Annie Leibovitz at the American Art Museum, hangs a photograph of the messiest workshop you’ve ever seen. Blanketed in the green, swampy light of an old fluorescent bulb, wires, saws, copper pipes, oil canisters, paint cans, pruning shears, and drills are crammed within every dimension of a wooden worktable, built into the wall against a peeling, dust-caked window. Chairs are covered in such clutter that they are only recognizable by the legs that stretch toward a ground. This is Pete Seeger’s workshop, just off from the log cabin that he built for his family’s home in Cold Spring, New York, in 1949. He has lived there ever since.
But Pete Seeger is conspicuously absent from the photograph. And for Annie Leibovitz to take a picture of a renowned icon without the presence of the individual is, if nothing else, unprecedented.
Throughout “Pilgrimage,” the audience is in the presence of important figures and icons, tied loosely but surely to a collective American-European consciousness. But the figures all lie just beyond the lens. We see a doorway. It is the entrance into Georgia O’Keefe’s New Mexico studio. We see a wicker bed frame. This is the bed that Thoreau slept on at Walden Pond. We see a windowless room bathed in red light. This was Ansel Adams’ darkroom in Carmel, California, where he developed his photographs in the last twenty years of his life. We don’t get but a haunting of Leibovitz’s subjects—all of whom are dead, save Seeger—yet there their presence is engrained deeply within the images, connecting us to the past not through nostalgia, but within the context of our present.
Annie Leibovitz was 21 years old and still in school when her portrait of John Lennon ran on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in January of 1971. By 1973, she was the magazine’s chief photographer. Almost over night, she became a photojournalism sensation, and through the years her camera has captured some of the most recognizable and iconic portraits of our time, revealing her to be among the foremost documentarians of the American social landscape. Her most famous photograph is arguably that of a nude John Lennon cocooned around a black-clad Yoko in 1980—taken five hours before Lennon was shot and killed.
Rather than focusing on her subject’s face, or having them pose with the banal glam of your typical high-profile photo shoot, Leibovitz is known for photographing her subject’s full self, from head to toe, engaged in something beyond the camera, frequently posed amidst objects from their lives.
Herein is perhaps the lead-in to “Pilgrimage.” Leibovitz has divested herself of her subjects all together, to tell their stories with only their significant surroundings. The subjects of her photographs, as with the Pete Seger workshop, are only shown in absence. From a busted television to a hat (Elvis and Lincoln, respectively), from a concert gown to a bedroom wall (Marian Anderson, Virginia Woolf), we only see these people through the objects and places tied to their lives.
The focus of these photographs is still celebrity, in a way. Perhaps “persons of significance” is a better way to say it—you won’t see George Clooney’s liquor cabinet or Angelina’s dirty laundry in this show. You will see Sigmund Freud’s bookshelf, Elvis Presley’s busted television (he had a habit of breaking them, with apparent force), Emily Dickinson’s nightgown, her only surviving dress, and Yosemite Valley, from the same location that Ansel Adams took his archetypal photographs of the landscape throughout the early 20th century.
Leibovitz’s own pilgrimage, which led to this exhibit, began by accident. “I started the project at a difficult time in my life,” she said at a tour of the exhibit on Jan. 24. Two years ago, she explains, she was in the middle of some financial and personal hardships. “I took the kids to Niagra Falls as a day trip. As they were leaning on the rail, I walked up behind them and snapped a photo. It’s a photo that anyone could take—an American snapshot.”
This photo hangs in the exhibition, marking a jumping off point for the journey to come. “I hope that what anyone can get out of this is that we are in a great country, and there is so much to see if you just hit the road. That’s what happened to me.”
Through her exploration, Leibovitz revisited locations repeatedly, letting them lead her to new ones, like a subconscious scavenger hunt. Concord, Massachusetts, for example, was a particularly rich area of discovery. First going there to photograph Walden Pond, she was drawn into the world of Thoreau, which led to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott and her father Bronson. All these figures are represented in some way in the exhibition. One of the Alcott sisters was a mentor to Daniel Chester French, the sculptor who created the statue of Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial. Leibovitz followed the trail, winding up in French’s studio in western MA, which led her to the National archives, where she found a rare multiple-lens glass pate of a Lincoln portrait. The National Archives led to Gettysburg. This led to Matthew Brady’s studio. And so on.
“I was trying to find a reason to live, places to be inspired,” Leibovitz said. “This is the kind of project that doesn’t end. The show went up, but that doesn’t mean it’s over. I did this to feed my portrait work, to save it. And it did. But there’s no reason I can’t return to this later.”
She also discussed the significance of children to this work: “Hanging this show, I saw children running around the museum. I loved it. So I hung everything low, cluttered the rooms with pictures, for children. The book [accompanying the exhibition] is dedicated to my children. I can’t wait to see a classroom in here, to see what the children think.”
Equally significant to the show are two technical facts regarding Leibovitz’s process. Unlike the work that made her into the presence she is today, none of this work was commissioned. This is Leibovitz’s first personal assignment since she was a student. This is also her first foray into digital photography. She used an array of cameras, starting with a cheap digital number that fit in her pocket, and eventually upgrading to a wide-angle lens with tripod.
“Pilgrimage” is significantly smaller and more intimate than almost anything Leibovitz has ever done. And its audience of museum goers is comparatively more modest than the national and international syndication of the magazines she works with. But Leibovitz is thrilled with the outcome and location of her project. “The Smithsonian is popping right now,” she said. “Doing a lot of great things. I feel very cool being here, so steeped in history.”
“We think we know who people are,” Leibovitz said. “But when you try to really understand someone, you find out how much there is to know,” and perhaps how much we can never know. Through her explorations, however, Leibovitz doesn’t seem to be worried about how well she knows her subjects. Her understanding is on a different level—an interpersonal one, tied to her intellectual roots, her heritage, her family and her sense of self. To put a face to self-discovery is no small feat, especially for someone who has lived her life behind the public spotlight, not in front. This show offers a portrait of a portrait artist and, as it turns out, there is not a face to be seen—just the essence of various selves.
For more information visit AmericanArt.si.edu