In ‘Pilgrimage,’ Leibovitz Explores Portraits Without People

February 7, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Known for portraits of celebrities and musicians, Annie Leibovitz has given herself a new assignment: capture striking landscapes and visit the homes of iconic figures to document significant items from their past. Jeffrey Brown and Leibovitz discuss her "Pilgrimage" book and exhibition at the Smithsonian's American Art Museum.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, the story of a portrait photographer viewing her world through a different lens.

Jeffrey Brown has our story.

ANNIE LEIBOVITZ, photographer: What’s interesting about the picture is — I get asked all the time, well, God, how’d you get to that position to take this picture? You know, it — actually, it’s on the walkway.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is what everybody sees.

ANNIE LEIBOVITZ: This is what everyone sees. You know, my children are right — standing right here. I mean, they’re right here. And I’m just over them. And they led me to this picture.

JEFFREY BROWN: A photograph of Niagara Falls — or any landscape, for that matter — isn’t what we normally think of when it comes to Annie Leibovitz.

What was beautiful about it was finding photographs that moved me -- that pulled you in, that were seductive, without being on assignment or having an agenda.Annie Leibovitz

Beginning in 1970 at Rolling Stone magazine and later for Vanity Fair and other publications, Leibovitz has become perhaps the era’s best-known portrait photographer, a chronicler of rock ‘n’ roll music and the culture at large, creator of numerous famous and attention-grabbing images.

Now, for a change, Leibovitz has given herself an assignment. The result, containing no portraits, is titled “Pilgrimage,” a new book and an exhibition now at the Smithsonian Institution’s American Art Museum in Washington.

ANNIE LEIBOVITZ: It’s a journey.

You know, it was — and I certainly didn’t realize it until afterwards when I look at these photographs and realized it was — there was a lot of searching in it. What was beautiful about it was finding photographs that moved me, that were — that, you know, pulled you in, that were seductive, without, you know, being on assignment or having an agenda.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, the big difference here, this famous portrait photographer has created portraits without the people.

And, in a way, that’s how she thinks of them, capturing her subjects through the things around them and what they saw. The chronicler of the contemporary instead looked to the past.

She started in Concord, Massachusetts, exploring lives through places and objects, the home of Louisa May Alcott, Henry David Thoreau’s bed. She developed a broader and eclectic list of people, including Sigmund Freud and his couch, Elvis Presley’s family grave site at Graceland, and of places, Old Faithful in Yellowstone Park, the Spiral Jetty sculpture in the Great Salt Lake.

Often, one led to another. Abraham Lincoln, for example, became a starting place.

ANNIE LEIBOVITZ: I love the Lincoln Memorial. Out of the Lincoln Memorial came not only Daniel Chester French, who was the sculptor of Lincoln. Marian Anderson came out of the Lincoln Memorial. Eleanor Roosevelt came out of the Lincoln Memorial.

One of the best trips I took was, I went to Lincoln’s boyhood — Lincoln’s birthplace in Kentucky, and drove from Kentucky to Indiana to his boyhood home and then up to Springfield, out in the middle of this country. And then I drove into Ohio for Annie Oakley. I’ve always loved the road, but I’m just saying, in this time, it’s great. It’s great to just get out there and make your own list, find your own way.

JEFFREY BROWN: The project grew out of a low point in her life. Her longtime partner, the writer and thinker Susan Sontag, died in 2004. Several years later, Leibovitz went through a much publicized financial crisis that almost left her bankrupt.

She says now she found a kind of renewal in the lives and works of other artists, photographer Ansel Adams, choreography Martha Graham, painter Georgia O’Keeffe.

ANNIE LEIBOVITZ: What was so great about the project is, you know, I thought I knew who Georgia O’Keeffe was. And as you go into these places and — where they lived and worked, you — the thrill of it is, you get to really learn who they are.

You know, walking into Georgia O’Keeffe studio in Abiquiu just floored me. It’s just — it doesn’t mean I can translate it into a photograph necessarily, all those feelings. And that’s — that was the work. It didn’t all come easy.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, Leibovitz, 62 years old and decades into a successful career, says she had to learn to shoot objects, such as here of Emily Dickinson’s dress.

So, here is the object, right, without the person.

ANNIE LEIBOVITZ: This is so not my kind of picture, where I come in . . .

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you mean?

ANNIE LEIBOVITZ: Well, I never come in tight and look at detail like this.


ANNIE LEIBOVITZ: And — but in order to tell the story, that it wasn’t just any white dress — these are alabaster buttons. And there were these unbelievable — you know, the unbelievable detail in this.

It does have a sense of composition and graphics, which — which is there since the early days in my work. So . . .

JEFFREY BROWN: Another major difference here, these photographs are taken with a digital camera, not film, which Leibovitz normally shoots, and without the equipment and setup required for her portrait work. She says she found unexpected benefits.

ANNIE LEIBOVITZ: I noticed it right away in Emily Dickinson’s house. It was the end of the day. There was hardly any light. And I started to just take pictures with a small snapshot digital camera.

And I found you could see into the corners. Film doesn’t have that much latitude. It has only a certain amount of, you know, tones and darks and lights. It’s a whole brand-new world. I’m learning along with everyone else.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, and, of course, and we’re all doing it, right, even on our smartphones.

ANNIE LEIBOVITZ: Love it. I love it.

ANNIE LEIBOVITZ: I love it. I think it’s great.

JEFFREY BROWN: Leibovitz says this was a project that in some ways actually has no end, though she is continuing the work she’s best known for.

ANNIE LEIBOVITZ: I love my work. I love my portrait work.

And I don’t — this just immediately feeds back into taking portraits. It’s . . .

JEFFREY BROWN: So, you . . .

ANNIE LEIBOVITZ: You have to take care of your work.

And by, you know, feeding this — by doing this kind of exercise of going out and, you know, basically, you know, turning your back on everything else you’re doing and just, you know, going another way is a really important exercise.

The best work, you don’t really know what you’re doing when you’re doing it. It’s — I love that. I’m beginning to trust that now. I don’t — you know, I mean, I was told . . .

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re beginning to trust that now, after all this time?

ANNIE LEIBOVITZ: Yes, yes, yes, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Pilgrimage” exhibition will continue at the Smithsonian through May 20. It travels next this summer to the Concord Museum in Massachusetts.