For two years, Annie Leibovitz, the great portrait photographer, took pictures with no people in them. The result is an exhibition of photos at the Columbia Museum of Art that nevertheless reveals the lives of famous people.
Most are photographs of artifacts or places associated with two dozen writers, artists and other American visionaries. Only one is still living. Many worked at the end of the 19th century, when social norms were changing and discoveries were revered.
“It was a history lesson for me,” Leibovitz said of the project. “I was enamored with all these lives, and I went looking to find them, how they lived and how they died.”
The 78 photographs are collected as “Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage.”
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To hear her tell it, it was more like wanderlust.
“It’s really an American story about small details in our country,” she told a group of about 45 photographers and reporters before leading a tour through the art gallery. “I was just asked if John Lennon was in it. It’s not that.”
From April 2009 to May 2011, Leibovitz visited house museums across the country (and, in a couple of cases, abroad), developing relationships with curators and family members to gain access to personal items, papers and clothing.
She calls the images she made “notes,” “studies” or “riffs,” and had no real explanation how she chose her subjects. Initially, she had a list of a dozen people who intrigued her. Sometimes, one life connected with another.
The list grew.
Exploring the story of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, for example, she discovered that Roosevelt arranged for Marian Anderson to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The 1939 performance broke racial barriers for the classically trained artist.
Roosevelt, Anderson and Lincoln each became a focus in her project.
So did Annie Oakley, Henry David Thoreau and Ansel Adams.
She photographed the bodice of Emily Dickinson’s white dress, with its buttons and lace. Elvis Presley’s record player. A box of Georgia O’Keefe’s handmade pastels.
Leibovitz, 64, said she grew up in a family of history buffs who traveled the country by car.
Her age and a desperation to find meaning fueled the project, she said.
The first photograph in the collection was taken at Niagara Falls, where her young children were mesmerized by the rushing water.
“I walked over and stood right behind them,” she said. “They showed me this picture. It’s what our children do; they show you things.”
In 40 years of photography work, including with Rolling Stone magazine, Leibovitz stood back from her subjects. And while she always noticed small personal objects, she said, “I didn’t allow myself to take those pictures because there weren’t people in them.”
The pilgrimage allowed her to break away and revive her talent.
She’s incorporating the new approach into her current work, a project on artists in their studios.
“The show is a little about redemption,” she said, “and searching and finding yourself.”