NIAGARA FALLS, ONTARIO (2009) Some of Leibovitz’s most emotional images from the “Pilgrimage” show are her landscapes.
Between 2009 and 2011, New York celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz wandered around the US and off to England, tracking down the homes and things of famous dead politicians and writers and naturalists and musicians. She photographed Elvis's grave at his Graceland home in Tennessee, photographer Ansel Adams's California darkroom, the gloves in President Lincoln's pocket when he was shot, Freud's couch in London, and the bed Henry David Thoreau slept in at his Walden cabin and later died upon in his family home in Concord.
Leibovitz's 70-some "Pilgrimage" photos (in a very good show organized by the Smithsonian, now at the Concord Museum, 200 Lexington Road, Concord, through September 23) are quiet, meditative, melancholy, elegiac.
These photos come after the death of Leibovitz's longtime partner, writer Susan Sontag, in December 2004, and her father, in February 2005. They also come after she barely staved off financial ruin that nearly cost her both her homes and her photographic archive in 2009. This is Leibovitz in her 60s, reflecting on what matters in life. This is about trying to regroup, to recharge.
ON THE ROAD After the death of her partner, Susan Sontag, and her father within a few months of each other, Leibovitz felt the need to go in search of new subject matter.
In the 1970s, for Rolling Stone, she photographed everything from a Rolling Stones tour to President Nixon's resignation, but by the 1980s she'd begun producing iconic staged portraits — a nude John Lennon embracing a clothed Yoko Ono (coincidentally, a few hours before he was murdered) for Rolling Stone, a nude, pregnant Demi Moore for the cover of Vanity Fair.
Leibovitz is our era's John Singer Sargent, a brilliant portrait stylist who makes everything seem effortless, but is mainly focused on surface. Over the past decade she's photographed the Bush administration, the Obama family, Queen Elizabeth, Vogue fashion spreads, and — some of her most compelling work — dramatic Disney advertisements featuring famous actors as characters from the company's animated features.
But Leibovitz has been craving something different for some time. Writing about a 1990 exhibit of Joseph Wright of Derby at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in her book A Photographer's Life: 1990-2005, she says, "Wright was a successful 18th-century British portrait painter who, as he got older, painted more and more landscapes. I feel a great affinity with him. I can see how you might want to turn your back on society and paint lakes and mountains." Looking for a change herself in 1993, she took a gig shooting landscapes for Conde Nast Traveler, but the relationship didn't pan out.