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Portal to the past

Legendary photographer Leibovitz unveils new Smithsonian history-inspired show

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‘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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PHOTOS: Benefit show for Hagerstown Hopes

Drag event at Shepherd University raises money for LGBTQ organization

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Drag artists perform at Shepherd University on Saturday to raise money for the LGBTQ organization Hagerstown Hopes. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Shepherd University Program Board and GSA presented a drag show benefit for Hagerstown Hopes at the Storer Ballroom in the Student Center in Shepherdstown, W. Va. on Saturday, April 1. Performers included Ashley Bannks, Alexa V. Shontelle, Maranda Rights, Ivanna Rights, Chasity Vain, Bayley, Dezi Minaj, Nicole James and Remington Steele.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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Arts & Entertainment

Washington National Opera honors Katherine Goforth

Award recognizes an artist who identifies as transgender or non-binary

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Katherine Goforth, the inaugural recipient of Washington National Opera’s True Voice Award, performing in the Portland Opera Gala, with pianist Nick Fox. (Photo courtesy Goforth)

Katherine Goforth was recently announced as the inaugural recipient of Washington National Opera’s True Voice Award. This award was created to provide training and increase the visibility of opera singers who self-identify as transgender and non-binary. Each recipient will receive a financial award and the chance to participate in career training, artistic coaching, and a performance with the Cafritz Young Artists. Recipients will also be presented by the Kennedy Center in a recital at the Millennium Stage. Goforth’s recital will take place in May 2024. 

The Washington Blade chatted with this talented singer about her artistic journey, experience as a trans opera singer, her future plans for her own career, and how she hopes to shape the field of opera.

Washington Blade: Can you share about your journey as an artist? How did you begin this journey and eventually pursue opera?

Katherine Goforth: I had an interest in music and singing for my entire life, but I looked at it as more of a hobby until my high school choir teacher required me to take voice lessons. After a few months of lessons, I started winning prizes and getting special attention for my singing, which meant a lot to me at the time because I was struggling a lot socially and at home. It was easy to dedicate myself to singing after that and hard to imagine pursuing another career. 

Talking about art is a lot broader than talking about music for me. As a teenager, I attended Vancouver School of Arts and Academics, a public arts magnet middle and high school, and we had arts education integrated into most of our subjects. Some of my most memorable projects were a mural painted on school windows I co-designed and co-created, a mockumentary film about the meaning of art, and the semi-opera I composed as my senior year capstone project. 

Since I was a kid, I felt like I had something to prove and have always tried to do more than what others thought possible in my performing and creative work. It has only been since I transitioned that I really started to feel like I was enough. The part of me that wanted to prove myself could calm down and I learned that it is enough for me when I stand in my own values and desires. 

Blade: What has been your experience as a trans person in the field of opera?

Goforth: As a young person coming into a sense of trans and gender non-conforming identity, opera was a damaging space to be part of. At the time, I believed there was no way to actualize my gender identity and continue working. Sure, there were queer people in opera, but almost all of them were straight-presenting men—and those who weren’t, didn’t seem to get the same opportunities. I have a strong memory of seeing the news about the premiere of As One [a chamber opera with a sole transgender protagonist]in 2014. It was the first time I had heard anyone mention trans people in an opera space. I don’t know how much this has changed for students, but I do think that fewer people are postponing their transitions for the sake of working in this industry, which is good. 

I haven’t worked in opera very much since I came out and it will be interesting to see how that develops over the next few years. I’ve heard a lot of people say that major opera companies aren’t ready for trans singers yet, but I hope they’re wrong. My struggle is that I feel much happier playing female characters, but I’m not capable of singing soprano-alto roles on stage right now. That’s something I hope will change in the future, but I think it’s important for me to accept my voice and try to find affirming projects to work on with the voice that I have. 

I’m going to Europe this summer to sing in the premieres of Philip Venables and Ted Huffman’s The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions, which is an adaptation of a novel by Larry Mitchell. My sense is that, although I love singing standard rep, the work that will feel best to me as a human being is contemporary opera. There are new works coming out all the time where a character’s vocal range isn’t restricted by their gender, or where parts are written to be affirming to trans singers. It’s an amazing experience to work on roles like that, like the non-binary protagonist in Drew Swatosh and Brian Dang’s If Only I Could Give You The Sun, a role I premiered. 

For me, the bottom line is that even in a perfectly affirming opera space, there’s a lot for me to navigate. We haven’t even gotten into the contrast between the project of self-actualization that, for me, defines transition and the way control is exercised over singers in the operatic space. It is hard to spend your whole life working on being your authentic self only to then step into an industry where self-identity is encouraged only if you have the right identity. I’m not going back into any closet.

Blade: Congratulations on being the inaugural True Voice Award recipient. How do you hope to use this award as a platform to further your career, and more broadly, shape the field of opera?

Goforth: I’d like to thank Washington National Opera, Kimberly Reed, Laura Kaminsky, Mark Campbell, and the rest of the selection committee for choosing me for this award. When I decided to come out, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to work in this industry again. It seems to me that trans people have never had this level of institutional support in our industry. I’m honored to receive it, but I’m also aware of all the other people who competed for this award and ways that my selection leaves them out. 

For me, I think my next step is getting out of a young artist box, getting management, and moving into a career where I’m making a living wage from singing without any second or side jobs, singing lead roles instead of supporting roles, and taking the creative work that I develop to the next level. 

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PHOTOS: Jackie Cox and Jan at Pitchers

RuPaul’s Drag Race alums join local performers at gay sports bar

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Jan performs at Pitchers on Wednesday, March 29. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

RuPaul’s Drag Race alums Jackie Cox and Jan performed at Pitchers DC on Wednesday, March 29. Other performers included Cake Pop!, Venus Valhalla, Brooklyn Heights, Jayzeer Shantey and Logan Stone.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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