For Pilgrimage, the photographer turned her camera away from celebrities and toward important places in our cultural history.
Before doors opened to the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage, a crowd of reporters gathered in a second-floor hallway, maneuvering around a sculpture of the Statue of Liberty, under the watchful gaze of a bird painted by John James Audubon. The pictures on display in the three adjacent rooms featured Leibovitz's portrayal of the hat Abraham Lincoln wore on the night he was assassinated and the compass that guided Lewis and Clark on their American expedition—both objects which can be found in the Smithsonian's American History Museum a few blocks away. Other images were captured during Leibovitz's travels across the United States—and a few steps beyond—over the course of about two years. One of the reporters turned to another, remarking on the preview's high turnout—likely due to the artist's famed career as a celebrity photographer for Vanity Fair and Vogue, and her shows in museums like Washington's National Portrait Gallery and the Maison Européenne de Photographie in Paris.
"The Smithsonian is hopping right now," Leibovitz declared. She eyed the gallery walls proudly. "I feel like I'm inside one of my pictures, almost. The Smithsonian is so steeped with history that I feel very, very lucky to be here."
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Downstairs, a class of school children lined up in the lobby. "A famous photographer is here today," their tour guide told them. "They're going to be taking pictures of her, and filming her, so they've asked us to be really quiet. Which I know is going to be no problem, right?" The kids were then sent off on a scavenger hunt, which was just the sort of project that Leibovitz took on with Pilgrimage.
The name of the photographer's collection—in which the character portraits Liebovitz is known for are uncharacteristically absent—refers to her journey in taking the pictures. For the first time since art school, she strayed from assignments and followed her intuition from one subject to the next. "It was definitely a search," Leibovitz said, "For all the things we search for. The reason to be alive, the reason to go on, the reason to think." The photos, which will be on display at the American Art Museum through May, were published as a book that came out late last year.
"Pilgrimage" is also the name of a story written by cultural critic Susan Sontag, with whom Leibovitz had been in a relationship until Sontag's death in late 2004. Published in a December 1987 issue of The New Yorker, the piece recalls a trip Sontag took as a teenager to the home of her literary hero, Thomas Mann. The expedition was not unlike the one Leibovitz took from April 2009 to May 2011, visiting the retreats of artists and cultural icons she admires, and mining historical sites for inspiration.
Although Leibovitz says there was no conscious connection between Sontag's story and her own work, she allows "it might have been in the subconscious." Before Sontag passed away from leukemia—the first in a series of crushing blows to Leibovitz over the past several years, including the deaths of her parents and very public financial troubles—the couple considered doing a project together. Sontag had developed the idea for Leibovitz's 1999 book, Women, for which she wrote the accompanying essay. The writer was also the subject of the most striking pictures in A Photographer's Life: 1990-2005—portraying Sontag's mortality, and in turn, the photographer's. With Pilgrimage, Leibovitz focuses on traces of American lives that have long since disappeared: Emily Dickinson, Annie Oakley, Ralph Waldo Emerson (with the notable exception of a log cabin workroom belonging to 92-year-old Pete Seeger).