Art Reads: “Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage”

On the final leg of its Smithsonian-organized, cross-country tour, Annie Leibovitz’s “Pilgrimage” exhibition will land at the New-York Historical Society from November 21 through February 22, 2015. While Leibovitz may be best known as a portraitist to the stars, this collection of images contains nary a celebrity portrait — at least not in the traditional sense.

When Leibovitz’s longtime partner Susan Sontag died in 2004, she took to the road to visit places and things that the couple had always wanted to see together. The images resulting from this journey — pictures of Virginia Woolf’s writing desk, Emily Dickinson’s only surviving dress, and the white gloves Abraham Lincoln had in his pocket when he died, among many others — are deeply moving and inflected with a sense of sorrow and loss.

“It was hard as hell to do this book in the middle of everything I was going through,” Leibovitz said in a New York Times interview. “I was told constantly this book wouldn’t bring in money, and I should drop it. But I really wanted to do it. I needed to save my soul.”

Published by Random House, the exhibition catalogue offers up more photographs than the exhibition. The images are certainly better in person, but what makes the book special is that it is punctuated by Leibovitz’s first-hand accounts of the places she was photographing.

At the house of Austin Dickinson, brother to Emily: “The house had been left the way it was when Emily and Austin were alive. You could feel the people who had lived there. Austin’s young son had died in one of the small bedrooms, and I found that I couldn’t walk into it.” At Georgia O’Keeffe’s studio in Abiquiu: “I didn’t expect to be moved when we walked into O’Keeffe’s studio, but I found myself weeping. It’s hard to describe the sense of solitude and peace in that room.” At Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty”: “I talked to the pilot about the best way to fly over the jetty. I told him to go in circles. … I always knew that the Spiral Jetty would be the last picture. It’s both an end and a beginning.”

— Ashton Cooper (ashton_cooper)

(Photo: Ashton Cooper)