If there’s one talent photographer Annie Leibovitz is known for, it’s capturing the essence of celebrity. Her daring portraits of famed figures from John Lennon and Yoko Ono to a very pregnant Demi Moore are nothing short of iconic, imbued with a raw intimacy that lays these stars bare in more ways than one. The living legend has shot countless covers for such magazines as Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, becoming a household name for her dramatic yet personal portraits.
Her latest body of work, however, features no red carpet regular in sight. Pilgrimage thrusts rather different subjects into the center of Leibovitz’s lens, presenting everything from Georgia O’Keefe’s adobe house to Emily Dickinson’s last surviving dress. Arranged in no particular order, the collection groups together images that combine to evoke each invisible icon at hand.
As its title suggests, the exhibit documents a rather personal journey for Leibovitz as she captures the sites particular to her own heroes. Despite this sharp shift in focus, however, Leibovitz’s signature is all over the collection; the eclectic photos merely explore the nature of icons from a different angle, using objects and places rather than faces to bring famed historical personalities to light.
Accumulated over the course of two years, these photos are the result of extensive travel throughout both America and Europe. With the reverence of a true pilgrim, Leibovitz pays homage to great names by capturing the relics of their legacies. In Freud’s case, this meant photographing his famed reclining couch as well as his personal collection of books on the psyche. Virginia Woolf’s troubled complexity, on the other hand, is portrayed through a shot of her messy writing desk and a particularly haunting image of the river where she ended her life.
The icons of Pilgrimage are represented by an equally atmospheric collection of locations. Leibovitz demonstrates a particular interest in Graceland, Elvis Presley’s mansion in Memphis. The varied photographs of the mansion’s lavish rooms and the television the star had once shot in a fit of anger allude to the grandiosity of the King’s life. Ansel Adams’ Yosemite, Georgia O’Keefe’s Santa Fe, and Thoreau’s Walden Pond also are all places that carried significance for their associated icons. Each empty frame invites the mental picture of a stage that the actor is about to stroll across. With a trained eye, Leibovitz thus captures the spirit of each place and evokes that of its absent occupant.
By far the most personal and striking piece of the collection, however, is Leibovitz’s single shot of Niagara Falls. A souvenir of her trip there with her daughters, the image renders the landmark in all its misty beauty. It is the lone star of the exhibit in the sense that it is unique to its photographer, containing no association with an inspirational figure. In a way, it is Leibovitz’s admission of her own personal legacy. This is not so much a demonstration of possessiveness as an artist’s recognition that every place and object that profoundly strikes one in a way becomes part of one’s identity. In the highest sense, the photo is the crown jewel of a collection that seeks to explore the personal meaning of the places and possessions one leaves behind.
Julia Lloyd-George is a sophomore at Georgetown University, where she is studying English. In her free time, she writes for the Georgetown Voice, assists with theater productions, and volunteers at 826DC.
This piece is the Winner in the 2012 DC Student Arts Journalism Challenge, an annual competition designed to identify and supported talented young arts writers.