EMILY DICKINSON’S ONLY SURVIVING DRESS (2010) How would we feel about this photo if we didn’t know the dress belonged to Emily?

Here she eschews assignments and follows her interests. She noses in close to the white-on-white jacquard fabric, eyelet lace, and abalone buttons of the last surviving dress of Emily Dickinson ("Susan's favorite poet"). An oddly pixelated photo (Leibovitz shoots digital now) shows the turbulent blue-black waters of the River Ouse where British writer Virginia Woolf ("very important to Susan") drowned in 1941. Crates and props from dancer Martha Graham's demolished Manhattan studio crowded into a Yonkers warehouse might bring to mind the threats to Leibovitz's archive. A red paper heart pierced with a bullet hole by the 19th-century sharpshooting performer Annie Oakley suggests so many rock stars Leibovitz has photographed, or maybe one Annie as a stand-in for another, or broken hearts. Leibovitz approaches these dead people's things — now turned holy relics — like a fashion photographer. Everything is handsome and intimate and just so, but she doesn't dig deep. No idiosyncratic detail ruffles those perfectly arranged surfaces. As with her celebrity photography, much of the emotional charge comes from our knowledge of the subject matter.

The most moving photos here are, ironically, unpeopled landscapes. Laundry blows on a line next to a farmhouse and brilliant orange maple tree at the Civil War battlefield of Gettysburg — the site of bloody fighting that prompted Lincoln's famous address about American freedom and equality. She photographs the Yosemite Valley under storm clouds in homage to photographer Ansel Adams (she can't compete) and a cracked and folded New Mexico desert hill in homage to painter Georgia O'Keeffe (wow). Thomas Jefferson's garden blooms green amidst the autumn orange hills of his manicured Monticello estate in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. Bottle-green water sluices over the horseshoe rim of Niagara Falls, cold and awesome and unstoppable. Leibovitz's version of American natural wonders and historic sites reaches toward 19th-century notions of sublime painting and democratic ideals.

"From the beginning . . . this project was an exercise in renewal," Leibovitz writes in the catalog. "Looking at history provided a way of going forward."

Read Greg Cook's blog at gregcookland.com/journal.

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