Throughout her career, world-famous photographer Annie Leibovitz has produced countless stunning portraits of notable figures and celebrities. Her new show, “Pilgrimage,” which opened at the American Art Museum on January 20th, features photography that takes visitors on a biographical tour in a much different way. Rather than showing even a single face or human body, she captures objects and landscapes that shed light on a number of transformative figures in both American and world history—a range of people that includes Eleanor Roosevelt, Sigmund Freud and Annie Oakley.
Ironically, the exhibition arose from Leibovitz’ personal journey of renewal, she explained during a press tour of the exhibition yesterday. ”I didn’t quite know what I was doing when I was first doing it,” she said. “I was trying to find a reason to live, or a place to be inspired, and found that this country has a deep well of places to go.”
The project differs greatly from her previous work, Leibovitz says, because she conceived it while looking for an escape from many of the difficulties—financial and otherwise—that had recently come into her life. As she writes in the book that accompanies the exhibition, after her fortunes took a unexpected tumble, she took her children on a trip to Niagara Falls only to find that her credit card had been declined at the hotel where they had planned to stay. Dejected, she brought her children to the falls and was unexpectedly filled with inspiration. “I was sitting off to the side, feeling a little down, and I saw my children mesmerized, studying the falls,” she said. “I walked over, stood behind them, and took this picture. It’s a photograph that anyone can take—an American snapshot.”
Although Leibovitz was energized by the experience, she was unsure how to proceed. “I wasn’t totally sure if I should do the project, because I was worried,” she said. “These pictures had come out of an escape, of not being on assignment. I was worried that if I made it a project, then it would become something I had to do.”
Nevertheless, she put together a list of places that captured some of history’s most influential and fascinating people. Over the next several years, she traveled to dozens of locations—places like Graceland, Monticello and Yellowstone. “I was swept away when I walked into these places,” she said. “I found myself taking pictures without thinking about the consequences. I was seduced.”
Museum-goers who view the results of Leibovitz’ journey are sure to be seduced as well. The photographs in the exhibition range widely in scale, with some focusing on quotidian minutiae (such as Emily Dickinson’s nightgown) and others revealing vast and uniquely American landscapes (such as the Great Salt Lake or Yosemite Valley). In all cases, the photos convey how Leibovitz chose what to photograph: she captured the objects and scenes that most deeply moved her. The items—things like Georgia O’Keeffe’s handmade pastels, or John Muir’s botanical specimens—are just as moving in the gallery as they must have been when Leibovitz first set eyes upon them.
The journey that led to “Pilgrimage” was first prompted by Leibovitz’ own children, and she hopes the photography can resonate especially well with younger audiences. “When I came into the Smithsonian, there were so many children running around, and it was so exciting to see, so I hung the show low, for the children,” she said. “This book is dedicated to my children, and it’s something that we want to pass on to them. I can’t wait to see a young class in here and see what they think.”
Leibovitz says that she hopes the show will remind others just how much there is to see in this country—and inspire them to start their own pilgrimages. “It was so much fun. I only hope that others see what anyone can get out of this,” she said. “We have this great country, and you can just hit the road and find places that inspire and mean something to you.”
Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage is on view at the American Art Museum through May 20th. Signed copies of her book are available at SmithsonianStore.com.