January 26, 2012 at 3:33 pm EDT | by Patrick Folliard
Portal to the past

‘Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage’
Smithsonian American Museum of Art
8th and F Street, NW

Annie Leibovitz in Washington Tuesday guiding a press tour of her new Smithsonian exhibit 'Pilgrimage.' (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Throughout her 40-year career, renowned American photographer Annie Leibovitz has remained a constant on the celebrity portraiture scene photographing everyone from Mick Jagger to her late lover author Susan Sontag to Miley Cyrus. In many instances her creative, nontraditional approach to making portraits has raised Leibovitz’s already celebrated subjects to cultural icon status (think a naked-and-very-pregnant Demi Moore on the cover of Vanity Fair).

But despite fabulous commercial and artistic success, Leibovitz, 62, went through a very public financial rough patch in recent years. It was during this time of duress that she opted to take a step back and pursue an unassigned, more personal project. In the tradition of great photographers like Walker Evans and Robert Frank, Leibovitz hit the road looking for inspiration and sources of renewal. In her travels, she was drawn to storied locales including Elvis’ Graceland and Georgia O’Keefe’s New Mexico studio, and people of historical significance like Annie Oakley and Martha Graham — stars from the past. And though she didn’t photograph any people for the project, she did shoot objects, landscapes and interiors connected to their lives and memories.

The result of her almost exclusively cross country odyssey (there was a brief trip to London) is  “Pilgrimage” the book, as well as “Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage,” a photographic exhibition of 64 gorgeous and intriguing photos taken between April 2009 and May 2011 that currently fills three rooms on the second floor of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. It’s up through May 20.

At a Tuesday press event, an amiable and forthcoming Leibovitz (tall and trim in black turtleneck, black pants and hiking boots) leads a group of press types through the exhibition. Going into the project, Leibovitz didn’t quite know what was going to happen, but that’s when the magic happens, she says. An interest in the Lincoln Memorial became a broader investigation into Gettysburg, Lincoln’s boyhood homes and African-American contralto Miriam Anderson who famously sang on the steps of the Memorial in 1939 after being denied the right to perform at segregated Constitution Hall. The exhibition includes a haunting photo of one of Anderson’s gowns from the era.

Similarly, when the New York-based Leibovitz traveled to Concord, Mass., to check out Walden Pond and Henry David Thoreau, she discovered Ralph Waldo Emerson’s library and novelist Louisa May Alcott’s carefully preserved home. In Amherst, Leibovitz dove into the life of Emily Dickinson (a Sontag favorite). The exhibit includes a tight shot of one of Dickinson’s surviving dresses. Contrary to what’s been said, the poet did not spend her last years roaming the house-shrouded specter. In fact, her garment of choice was an ornately embroidered white nightgown with alabaster buttons.

The project took Leibovitz west to shoot Annie Oakley’s riding boots and a bullet pierced heart-shaped target from the cowgirl’s Wild West Show. In England, Leibovitz made beautiful photos of Freud’s couch and the surface of Virginia Woolf’s grubby, ink-stained writing desk. And closer to home, she shot a peek into Val-Kill, Eleanor Roosevelt’s modest girls-only retreat in the Hudson Valley.

“Pilgrimage” is Leibovitz’ first all-digital show, and though she professes a keen interest in new methods of photography (“You’ve got to keep up.”), she likes to keep things looking real. Her photos are stylized, abstract and literal. Some shots (including an overhead look at Thoreau’s bed), she describes as more documents than photographs.

While she’d hoped for the book, Leibovitz didn’t expect “Pilgrimage” to be shown at the Smithsonian.

“It’s wonderful. These rooms are brimming with history. They could actually be photographed as part of the exhibition,” she says. “When I first came here I noticed the number of school children touring the gallery so I intentionally hung the show especially low and crowded the rooms with lots of photos and information — something the exhibition’s curator [Andy Grundberg ] isn’t too happy about. I can’t wait to watch the first big group of kids come through.”

For history buff Leibovitz, visiting home museums, sifting through artifacts and being seduced by the past proved a real kick; but by no means has she abandoned the celebrity portrait work that made her a famous: “I love my portrait work and did this other work to protect and fuel her nurture work. I’m back in a big way.”

What she’d most like people to take from the exhibition, says Leibovitz, is for “everyone to realize that it’s a big country out there. Go ahead, hit the road and find places and things that inspire and mean something to you.”

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