Annie Leibovitz’s Personal “Pilgrimage” is a Portrait of America

American Beauty
By Patrick Wall
Friday, October 4, 2013
Annie Leibovitz speaking at the Columbia Museum of Art on Oct. 3. Photo by Jonathan Sharpe
A few years ago, photographer Annie Leibovitz was in a helicopter over Utah’s Great Salt Lake, trying to take an aerial photograph of Spiral Jetty, Robert Smithson’s monumental sculpture of mud and basalt rock and ruddy water, for her photography exhibition Pilgrimage, opening today at the Columbia Museum of Art. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted a jeep parked near the base of the monument. Intrigued, she instructed the pilot to land the helicopter so she could talk to who might make the journey by jeep to one of the world’s most remote artworks. It was a young couple, she says, who’d made their way after seeing Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field in New Mexico.

“They were on an art pilgrimage,” Leibovitz said Thursday at a press reception at the Columbia Museum of Art.

Simultaneously, Leibovitz was on a pilgrimage of her own.

Widely considered one of American’s best-known living artists, Annie Leibovitz’s fastidious portrait photography is found on the covers of Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone and in museums like the Corcoran Gallery of Art and Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Brooklyn Museum of Art. During the late 1980s, Leibovitz started to work on a number of high-profile advertising campaigns, earning a Clio award for her classy portraits of American Express celebrity cardholders. The Library of Congress hails Leibovitz as a living legend.

But more recently, Leibovitz found herself embroiled in a fight for her financial foundation. She was sued, in July, in the New York Supreme Court for nonpayment by a company that lent her $24 million. She faces multi-million-dollar tax liens. She could lose her Civil War-era townhome in Greenwich Village. She spends as much time in acrimonious meetings with accountants and lawyers as she does looking into a viewfinder.

So it should come as no surprise that after 40 years of assignments and her recent legal troubles, Leibovitz felt she just needed to do something for herself.

“Like Kate Upton,” she says, referring to her cover photo of actress Kate Upton for the September issue of Vanity Fair, “that’s a Graydon Carter [Vanity Fair editor] photo. That’s not my photo.”

Indeed, the photographs in Pilgrimage are the result of Leibovitz’s own pilgrimage. Not long after her financial struggles started in 2009, Leibovitz, 63, planned a trip with her daughters to Niagara Falls. It was there she took the photograph of Niagara Falls that opens the exhibition, a gorgeous green-gray landscape photograph of the the Niagara River cascading over cliffs, a thick cloud of mist rising from below.

Her daughters “were mesmerized. They showed me the picture,” Leibovitz says. “It’s what children do — they show you things.”

Leibovitz made a list of nearly 30 places, choosing subjects simply because they were of interest to her: Emily Dickinson’s home in Massachusetts; Annie Oakley’s childhood home in Ohio; Elvis’ palatial Graceland; Georgia O’Keeffe’s adobe home in New Mexico. She wasn’t on any assignment; she took day trips with her kids and digital camera.

In essence, the photos in Pilgrimage are Leibovitz’s vacation pictures.

“These pictures may surprise even those who know Leibovitz’s photography well,” say guest curator Andy Grunberg, a former New York Times photography critic. “They are more intimate, personal and self-reflective than her widely published work.”

There are no people in the photographs comprising Pilgrimage, no celebrities, no models, no very important people. Instead of photographing rock stars, she's photographing relics.

The photographs range from majestic widescreen landscapes of Niagara Falls and Yosemite National Park and snow-dusted rural Ohio highways to tiny, intimate macro photographs of Emily Dickinson’s only surviving dress and the delicate thatch of Henry David Thoreau's bench and Annie Oakley’s heart target. All are, in spirit, still lifes — unpeopled, rather solemn, considered. Leibovitz’s pictures are concerned with everyday details, from the patterns on Dickinson’s dress to the worn and weathered gloves Abraham Lincoln wore when he was assassinated.

Though they have no people in them, the photos are still portraits, after a fashion, Leibovitz using tiny details to construct moving in absentia portraits of her famous subjects. She still innately focuses on the most iconic objects in the room — Ralph Waldo Emerson’s massive library, Ansel Adams’ dark room, Charles Darwin’s skeletons, Georgia O’Keeffe’s palette, Martha Graham's dance warehouse — but in highlighting minutia, she provides a depth not commonly found in her celebrity snapshots, acknowledging and exceeding the subjects’ common mythology.

Consider, for instance, the series on Elvis Presley. Shot in both Presley’s boyhood home in Tupelo and his Graceland fortress of solitude, Leibovitz paints Elvis as a tragic figure though her still images: empty staircases, unused Harley-Davidson motorcycles, even broken television sets.

“Elvis didn’t throw anything away,” Leibovitz says, referring to the television set, the screen of which features myriad spidering cracks radiating from a bullet hole in the corner. See, Elvis loved guns, Leibovitz says, and is rumored to have fired at a television after seeing Robert Goulet on a late-night show. Leibovitz’s Elvis series paints the King not as a youthful, hip-swinging pop-culture conqueror or bloated post-comeback trainwreck, but as a man — a hoarder with a violent temper, consumed by petty jealousies.

The pictures, although there are no people in them, are portraits of subjects that have directly shaped America’s cultural inheritance.

“This is a special set of pictures,” Leibovitz says. “It is a very special exhibition. It’s an American story about the small details of our country.”

And, in a larger sense, Pilgrimage is a broad, albeit subjective, portrait of America. As much as Leibovitz’s pilgrimage was a sabbatical from her daily grind to save her artistic soul, it’s a pilgrimage to the heart of the modern American experience.

“The cool thing is, most of these places, you can go to,” says Will South, chief curator of the Columbia Museum of Art. “You can make your own list, go your own places, take your own shots. And somewhere at the bottom of this is: We all want to be a part of this. That’s why we get in the car and spend the money on the gas and do the drive. We want to see where Elvis walked. Isn’t that, in a way, an affirmation of your country and community?”

“We want those deep experiences,” adds South. “We want to have relationships in our lives. And when you get a picture, it reminds you of your wife, your son, your daughter, your mother. It makes them present for you. And in a way, [Leibovitz] has made America present for us.”

Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage runs Oct. 4 through Jan. 5 at the Columbia Museum of Art. The Columbia Museum of Art is at 1515 Main St.; the museum is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $12 for adults. Call 799-2810 or visit columbiamuseum.org for more information.

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