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.
Leibovitz photographed the private lives led by legendary figures. And in doing so, she looked behind their fame and captured images of them working on the art or ideas that defined their legacies.
Longtime fans of her work are undoubtedly in for a surprise. They have come to expect excessive and imaginative sets, which have included everything from marching bands to bathtubs of warm milk (recall her famous photo of Whoopi Goldberg). They expect Leibovitz to push the boundaries of what’s possible, or even socially acceptable, in a magazine photo shoot.
They’ll see none of that in “Pilgrimage.” Instead, they’ll see Leibovitz actively defying their expectations, taking pictures, by herself, without an agenda.
But she’s not giving up on her magazine assignment work just yet. Her name is still in the photo credits for Vogue and Vanity Fair.
And, political junkies, take note: She’s still creating portraits of some of the most influential people in Washington. This month’s issue of Vogue features a picture of Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) standing alongside Meryl Streep in front of the Capitol.
The photograph is part of a larger shoot for the magazine’s cover story on Streep and her new film, “The Iron Lady.” Streep agreed to the cover story on the condition that it include a picture of advocates for a National Women’s History Museum. Streep has contributed $1 million to the cause and serves as its celebrity spokeswoman.
According to Maloney, who chatted with Leibovitz after the shoot, Leibovitz designed the photo as a replica of an old picture that her mother took on a school field trip. The photo shows the Members standing on the Capitol lawn, posing as they likely did in their grade school trips to Washington.
“She had done a great deal of work before she did the shoot,” Maloney said.
All of the women in the photo are dressed entirely in black, except for the Members of Congress, who each wear a splash of color.
“We were instructed to dress as we would for our work in Congress. Vogue asked us to come prepared with pocketbooks and briefcases to add a look of rolling up our sleeves to bring the National Women’s Museum to fruition,” Collins said.
Leibovitz worked “very rapidly,” Norton said, but she let the group establish a comfortable dynamic. “She made herself almost invisible. … She extracted herself from the shoot except when she had to place us.”
In the photo that ran with the cover story, Streep — one of the world’s most famous actresses — is hardly noticeable, kneeling on the grass in the corner of the photo. Leibovitz instead draws the most attention to the four Members who have worked on legislation to authorize construction of the museum on the National Mall.
“Annie Leibovitz is a true professional and an extraordinary artist,” Collins said. “She’s photographed rock stars, famous models and [Queen Elizabeth II], but she managed to make us feel equally as special.”