Photos: Michael Basu.
Of the press releases I receive at the Dig every week, a fair number of them don’t get more than a passing glance based on two words: geographic reach. Though we’re proud of our expanding web presence here on DigBoston.com, DigBoston’s print issue is currently distributed to its boxes in the Boston metro area, and therefore our coverage tends to stick within that realm or that of the reach of the MBTA. That being said, we love leaving the city every once in awhile, just like everybody else, and I recognize the need to highlight events that are worth renting a Zipcar for—jaunts to Tanglewood for a change of scenery, film festivals in Salem, Bob Dylan in Lowell, etc. etc.
The Concord Museum’s upcoming exhibit of Annie Leibovitz’ Pilgrimage is an event of this nature, and one that everyone should brave the commuter rail’s lax weekend schedule for.
For those unfamiliar with Annie Leibovitz, she’s one of the most prolific American photographers and the covers she’s shot have become trademark pieces for the magazines that publish them. She does Vanity Fair’s best-selling Hollywood Issue ever year, she creates these fantastical settings and scenarios for her Vogue editorial shoots and the recent work she’s done for Louis Vuitton and Disney brings an element of glamor, darkness and familiarity to billboards that you’d never get from anyone else.
For those of us who want to write about or photograph interesting, creative and inspiring people for a living, Annie Leibovitz is one of those people you aspire to be: she’s a technical genius with the sharpest of eyes and a demonstrated reputation for excellence. So, when Carol of the Concord Museum invited us to the press walk-through of the exhibit the day before its opening, which was to be guided by Annie Leibovitz herself, you can imagine how quickly I sent a resounding “YES” in reply.
Known for her portraits and her elaborate, controversial, fashion-forward and career-making shots of famous people, Leibovitz goes in a completely different direction with Pilgrimage, as I mentioned earlier this week. These portraits aren’t of blushing movie stars, heads of state and tortured musicians, but of the tools, clothing, instruments, furniture, living rooms, workspaces and laboratories of modern genius. And this is one of the first things she shares with us as we walk between her photographs, this connection between her career to date and how Pilgrimage came to be:
“I felt depleted. When I started out in magazines, it was this incredible landscape that no one was taking advantage of … I felt as though I had reached the end of my rope. [Pilgrimage] is really a notebook, a project about process.”
See, Leibovitz, incredibly talented and awe-inspiring as she is, is not without her troubles, and dealt with some serious personal and professional blows between 2005 and 2009: she took out millions of dollars in loans to offset debt and a slew of financial woes, and her companion, Susan Sontag, passed away in 2005. Still, she worked through it, and Pilgrimage came out of it, as these photos were shot between 2009 and 2011. The project started with a trip to Niagara Falls with her family, and the shot that came from that day—the one chosen for Pilgrimage’s cover—was the one that launched this creative and spiritual excavation of sorts. “I stood behind my kids [at Niagara Falls], and I looked out and thought, ‘Is this the beginning or the end?’” she laughs, referencing the dramatic life-or-death cascade she shot just beyond the railing they were standing at. “My children showed me this picture, and I thought, ‘Where do we go from here?’”
Apparently, all over: to Yosemite where Ansel Adams stood and then his dark room, to Pete Seeger’s workshop, to the River Ouse where Virginia Woolf went for a walk and never came back, to Amherst for the buttons of Emily Dickinson’s white dress, to New Mexico where Georgia O’Keeffe’s handmade pastels lay waiting in their box, to Graceland where Elvis shot his television set when Robert Goulet showed up on the screen, and eventually, to Concord, where Louisa May Alcott scrawled on the walls of the Orchard House and Henry David Thoreau simplified his life on Walden Pond.
“I thought Thoreau slept on nails or on the ground,” she jokes, bringing us to the photograph of his ornate headboard set against a white background, marveling at the paradoxical “sophistication of the man, and the bed he died on.”
We continue on, passing a close-up of a heart-shaped target shot by Annie Oakley and a birds-eye view of Robert Smithson’s spiral jetty. Instead of droning on about the circumstances of the photo and the technique she employed to capture each image, Leibovitz shares her thoughts on each photo, revealing her emotional connection with each piece (on Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz’s portraits: “Those make my knees weak!”) and punctuating the steps in between with an exclamation of “I’m talking too much!” or two. She wasn’t talking too much, not by a long shot: she was storytelling and providing an additional few precious words in addition to the millions contained within the Pilgrimage photographs.
When it’s time to say goodbye, I squeeze in a last question, asking her how Pilgrimage either reinforces or changes her relation to working with celebrity—she’s been quoted before as saying that she’s “more interested in what they do than who they are.” Though she says that Pilgrimage helped “sharpen [her] sense of environment,” she reflects on the project on the whole, starting with a poignant reference to Sontag’s influence: “… This is definitely moving out on my own, for the rest of my life … there are aspects of my life that reflect Susan. In this book, Emily Dickinson was her favorite poet; Virginia Woolf was her favorite writer. Those things will never go away. I was pretty much on my own out there, and subconsciously, she’ll always be there. She had given me a lot of good tools to move on with …
“You know, I really did Pilgrimage for myself, and then it became something for my children. The fact that other people can look at it is great. I see it sitting side by side my portrait work.”
“I always lamented that I didn’t get to shoot Martha Graham in my lifetime, so to go looking for Martha Graham and going into that, and being enamored with her relationship with Barbara Morgan and their life-long relationship, and how Barbara Morgan took all these great pictures of her … you know, it’s funny how this all connects. Emily Dickinson’s poem “Letter To The World” is the one Martha Graham did the dance for, and there’s a very famous photograph of Barbara Morgan’s of Martha where her leg is kicked up, and it’s just a beautiful picture. I wondered if that costume still existed. Having just shot Marion Anderson’s dress [for Pilgrimage], I wondered if I could get to Martha Graham through her costumes, that maybe I’d find something. They wore the costumes to death and then they just threw them away; it’s such a dance attitude. It can’t really be captured, though digitally now, I’m wondering about that … but in any case, we went to the Yonkers warehouse to look for her costumes, and I walked in and saw that room [featured in Pilgrimage].”
Though the relics and recreations of Pilgrimage won’t be finding their way to the front of a newsstand anytime soon, it’s the definition of inspiration, seeing that somebody can pick themselves up from low places—personally, professionally, all of it—and forge on in the name of creative growth and the pursuit of a good story. That’s what I gleaned from Pilgrimage, along with an appreciation for Leibovitz’s ability to develop the process behind her work as candidly as her photographs do in the dark room. According to the press release, Pilgrimage taught Annie Leibovitz “how to see again.” Hopefully, those who pick up Pilgrimage or see it in the way it should be seen will walk away with that same understanding: that a return to the familiar, in any sense of the word, gives way to rediscovery.