Annie Leibovitz’s American Pilgrimage

In a new book and exhibition, the esteemed photographer pursues a passion for history and lets us see familiar icons in a fresh light

Graceland
Graceland, Elvis Presley’s home in Memphis, has been kept largely as it was when he lived there, from 1957 until his death in 1977. Dining room mirrors reflect a stairway to the private quarters. © Annie Leibovitz / Contact Press Images from the book Pilgrimage, Random House, 2011 © Annie Leibovitz

“How wonderful to uncover the reasons you like a place,” Annie Leibovitz said while signing copies of Pilgrimage, a new book of photographs that’s the basis of a traveling exhibition opening January 20 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Among the 300 or so fans jammed into the bookstore, those who expected Leibovitz to play the haughty diva—it was she who photographed nude, pregnant Demi Moore for Vanity Fair—were disappointed. Leibovitz chatted with fans, she posed for cellphone snapshots, she cried when she read aloud from Pilgrimage about Marian Anderson, the celebrated African-American singer who performed at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 after the Daughters of the American Revolution banned her from their hall. There are 122 images in the fastidiously printed book, most made at historic U.S. sites. Emerson’s library. Lincoln’s top hat (in the Smithsonian). Niagara Falls. Some are landscapes, but all are, in spirit, still lifes—unpeopled, rather solemn, considered. Leibovitz’s trips to those places over two years served as a welcome change of focus in a hectic life beset by financial troubles, an “exercise in renewal,” she calls it. “Looking at history provided a way of going forward.”

Tribute to the King

Graceland
(© Annie Leibovitz / Contact Press Images from the book Pilgrimage, Random House, 2011 © Annie Leibovitz)

Graceland, Elvis Presley’s home in Memphis, has been kept largely as it was when he lived there, from 1957 until his death in 1977. Dining room mirrors reflect a stairway to the private quarters.

(Buy a signed copy of American Pilgrimage at SmithsonianStore.com)

Road Warrior

Annie Oakley
(© Annie Leibovitz / Contact Press Images from the book Pilgrimage, Random House, 2011 © Annie Leibovitz)
Sharpshooting Annie Oakley joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in 1885 at age 24. Other than “heavy, manual labor,” Oakley said, “anything a man can do, a woman can do practically as well.” Her trunk is now at the Garst Museum in Greenville, Ohio.

Words in Flight

Emily Dickinson
(© Annie Leibovitz / Contact Press Images from the book Pilgrimage, Random House, 2011 © Annie Leibovitz)
Linking Leibovitz to the poet Emily Dickinson, this 19th-century vitrine, at the Amherst Historical Society and Museum in Amherst, Mass., was owned by a friend of Mabel Todd, who edited many of Dickinson’s poems after her death in 1886.

Pathbreaking

Marian Anderson
(© Annie Leibovitz / Contact Press Images from the book Pilgrimage, Random House, 2011 © Annie Leibovitz)
In 1939, Marian Anderson (above: one of her concert gowns) was kept from singing at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. because she was African-American. With the help of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Anderson performed instead on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before an audience estimated at 75,000 people.

Grasping Lincoln

hands
(© Annie Leibovitz / Contact Press Images from the book Pilgrimage, Random House, 2011 © Annie Leibovitz)
While fulfilling his 1914 commission to create the statue for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., the sculptor Daniel Chester French made plaster casts of his own hands. He worked often in Stockbridge, Mass., in a studio now owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He sculpted several models for the Lincoln statue, which was ultimately hewed from 28 marble blocks.

Signature Earthwork

Spiral Jetty
(© Annie Leibovitz / Contact Press Images from the book Pilgrimage, Random House, 2011 © Annie Leibovitz)
Created with heavy machinery at Utah’s Great Salt Lake in 1970, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty was submerged for decades before resurfacing. Leibovitz notes: “It will never be exactly like it was when Smithson was there.”

Master At Work

Ansel Adams darkroom
(© Annie Leibovitz / Contact Press Images from the book Pilgrimage, Random House, 2011 © Annie Leibovitz)
Leibovitz visited Ansel Adams’ darkroom, in his Carmel, California, house, as part of her tribute to “what Ansel did to make people aware of how extraordinary the landscape is.”

Power Of Place

Niagara Falls
(© Annie Leibovitz / Contact Press Images from the book Pilgrimage, Random House, 2011 © Annie Leibovitz)
“It was extraordinary,” Leibovitz writes of her close encounter with Niagara Falls. “You really felt like you were floating over the falls.”

John Muir's Botanical Specimens

Naturalist John Muir
(© Annie Leibovitz / Contact Press Images from the book Pilgrimage, Random House, 2011 © Annie Leibovitz)

Naturalist John Muir lived alone in Yosemite from 1868 to 1873, cataloging and collecting botanical specimens. Shown here is the Teak Tictonia Grandus.

Emily Dickinson's White Dress

American poet Emily Dickinson
(© Annie Leibovitz / Contact Press Images from the book Pilgrimage, Random House, 2011 © Annie Leibovitz)

When Leibovitz went to the house of American poet Emily Dickinson, she wrote that looking at Dickinson’s white dress from close range brought “a beautiful ornateness to it.”