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A Triumphant Change of Pace

Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images
Photographer Annie Leibovitz took a break from her magazine and portrait work to create a new offering, “Pilgrimage,” which is on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Asked a few years ago about photographs that Annie Leibovitz took on a 1975 Rolling Stones tour, lead singer Mick Jagger said, “She certainly conveyed something from behind the stage ... which had never really been seen before.” 

It’s a comment that also describes Leibovitz’s “Pilgrimage,” an exhibit of photographs from her newest book, currently on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, just off the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro stop.

The project started as an idea that Leibovitz and her partner, Susan Sontag, had to create a “beauty book” of places they cared about. For Leibovitz, the idea offered the promise of taking pictures without the agenda and pressures of a magazine assignment.

But after a series of emotional setbacks — including Sontag’s death in 2004 and serious financial difficulties — the project turned into an opportunity for the photographer to reconnect with the work she loves.

“From the beginning ... this project was an exercise in renewal,” Leibovitz writes in the book.

The exhibit includes no portraits, no stylized sets, no hints of choreography, all staples of Leibovitz’s work. Viewers familiar with her most famous celebrity portraits — such as her Vanity Fair cover of Demi Moore (nude and seven months pregnant) or her Rolling Stone cover of John Lennon (wrapped in an intimate fetal position around Yoko Ono) — instead see images of natural landscapes and unadorned objects from attics and archives.

And yet it’s one of her most provocative collections to date. It’s her first entirely digital project, and it documents her two-year journey to the homes and work spaces of historical figures who, as she says, “made an impression”: Eleanor Roosevelt, Annie Oakley, Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keeffe, among others.

Her photographs are simple. They include close-up shots of clothes the legendary figures wore, the rooms where they slept and the scenery they saw when they looked out their windows. 

They tell stories about the country’s most celebrated icons.

During a visit to Emily Dickinson’s house, Leibovitz photographed the notoriously reclusive poet’s only remaining dress. It’s a white button-up garment with long sleeves and traditional collar. From a distance, it looks plain and homely. Up close, though, the photo shows the intricate lace and detailed stitching that, as Leibovitz writes, “weren’t meant for anybody else.”

Leibovitz also photographed Thomas Jefferson’s vegetable garden at Monticello. Taken in the late afternoon, the picture shows a lush bed of vegetables set against the rolling Blue Ridge Mountains during the peak of fall foliage. Jefferson, of course, was an avid gardener, and the spot was a laboratory for his ideas on agriculture and economic growth.

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