Annie Leibovitz shares her “Pilgrimage”


Annie Leibovitz is a genius. And because her subjects understand her brilliance, they trust her when she asks to photograph them in unconventional outfits or settings.

Leibovitz also has personal experience with the consequences of marriage inequality for same sex couples. When her partner Susan Sontag died in 2004, Leibovitz faced inheritance taxes that forced her to take out a loan against her photographs in order to keep the estate Sontag bequeathed to her. (Legally married couples do not have to pay inheritance taxes.)

The photographer had a rough couple of years, but the financial problems gave her the impetus to move forward with a project she and Sontag talked about when they traveled together. Her new book, Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage, is the result — an introspective work that she describes as a personal renewal.

In Pilgrimage, Leibovitz turns her camera to a different kind of celebrity: historical locales that inspire her and spark her curiosity. Set mostly in the U.S., the images include some gorgeous landscapes, but the truly remarkable shots focus on the personality of the places — Ansel Adams‘ darkroom, Abe Lincoln‘s stovepipe hat, Georgia O’Keefe‘s pastels.

A key difference in these photographs is that Leibovitz took them without the usual setup. She used no assistants, props, or wind machines. For the most part, the images are simply photographer and subject. They are composed, of course, but captured as she saw them in the moment. The first images in the book, from Emily Dickinson‘s house, were taken after most of the daylight was gone. Of course, when an eye like Leibovitz’s falls on an image, even a simple photo of Dickinson’s dress is remarkable.

The strongest images are, according to the New York Times, from Georgia O’Keefe’s home in Abiquiu, New Mexico.

“While I was growing up, Georgia O’Keeffe represented a big idea, a stereotypical idea, for us, as women,” Leibovitz said. “But I never quite filtered it, never took her in.” When she entered O’Keefe’s studio, she started crying. “It was very emotional. She is the real thing. She has such a bad rap. I kept going back. The first hit I had was how little you need. She had her view. Her bed. She made her own pastels. She had music — she loved music. She had the best speakers! Not a lot of stuff.”

The lack of actual humans is notable to Leibovitz fans, but for her, the photos are equally representative of people.

“I have a bit of a feeling that I’ve had it with people. But you don’t ever get away from people, really,” she said. “And these are pictures of people to me. It’s all we have left to represent them. I’m dealing with things that are going away, disappearing, crumbling. How do we hold on to stuff?”

An exhibit of photographs from Pilgrimage opens Thursday at the Pace Gallery in Brooklyn and will move to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in January. A national tour is in planning stages, but unconfirmed. Leibovitz is doing a series of readings and book signings, too, so check the Random House site periodically for more information.

Will Pilgrimage be on your Christmas list? Do you like this kind of work from Leibovitz? If you get to see the exhibit, let us know your thoughts.

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