05/02/2013 10:55 am ET Updated Jul 02, 2013

Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage


Fifty-seven digital photographs printed on watercolor paper grace the galleries at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. All of them are horizontal. None of them are of people. This is Annie Leibovitz's new body of work. "Pilgrimage," which coincides with her new book of the same name (published by Random House), is a travelling exhibition that began in January at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. Now hanging alongside Georgia O'Keeffe's work, this show is the result of a self-proclaimed pilgrimage across the U.S. and the U.K. so that Leibovitz could take pictures "when there wasn't an agenda."

Susan Sontag and Leibovitz were partners for fifteen years, until Sontag's death in 2004. "The Beauty Book" was the original title for Liebovitz's current work, a project dreamed up by the couple as, in Leibovitz's words, "an excuse for us to travel around to places we cared about and wanted to see." It sounds like the musings of escapist lovers and Sontag died before the project was realized. Indeed, while Sontag battled cancer, there would seem to be a dire need to imagine a world beautiful enough to make a book about it, and after Leibovitz lost a life partnership a pilgrimage seems entirely appropriate. So Leibovitz compiled a list. She did not travel by foot; more often she took day trips from her Hudson Valley home with her kids and digital camera. She went to nearly thirty places, including the homes of Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, Eleanor Roosevelt, Elvis Presley, Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Ansel Adams. She followed tracks to Gettysburg, Yellowstone, Spiral Jetty, the Smithsonian, the Lincoln Memorial, Niagara Falls, Abiquiú, and more. The photographer, who was hired by Rolling Stone in 1973 when she was still in college, and today remains responsible for countless iconic American images, has taken a detour. Instead of photographing rock stars, she's photographing relics. This is a bit alarming for the soaring six-foot tall woman notorious for documenting and in part creating contemporary culture.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words and it's true that none of the Pilgrimage images could exist without the story, or at least the wall tag. Knowing their location is necessary and knowing the history helps even more. Four photographs hang of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's birthplace and home in Charlottesville, Virginia. An inheritance from his father, these three thousand acres were originally a tobacco plantation worked by more than fifty slaves. By Jefferson's death, on July 4, 1826, Monticello's main crops were grains necessitating over two hundred workers. The entire estate became a lifetime project with twenty-one rooms and multiple gardens. Leibovitz's photos are modest and perplexing considering the man behind the curtain. They reveal a close up of lima bean pods, a pulled root vegetable still covered in earth, an autumnal expanse of land, and a pile of scarlet runner beans. Today, Jefferson's vegetable garden is recreated to reveal his horticultural and landscaping experiments. Leibovitz picked four images to tell Jefferson's story, and in Pilgrimage, the book, she informs us that Jefferson cultivated over fifty varieties of beans.

While receiving the Centenary Medal in London, England, Leibovitz found herself driving to Virginia Woolf's country house in East Sussex, called Monks House. She describes being left alone in Woolf's writing studio with some bread, jam, and coffee: "Don't leave me alone in here. Please. It made me nervous. On the other hand, I felt so privileged." Of course, not just anyone would be left alone in Monk's House and Leibovitz did what any legendary artist would do -- remove every item from the desk to get her shot. The photograph of Woolf's desk is a bird's-eye perspective, close-up and cropped at the sides. Bare, the table is reduced to raw wood that's splattered in ink stains and various bruises. It looks more like an artist's palette than a writer's desk, inciting romantic notions of quill and inkwell. According to her husband, Leonard, Woolf's table was "littered with used matches, paper clips, broken cigarette holders, manuscripts, and bottles of ink." It is here that the writer penned Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, among others works.

Another photograph shows only deep blue waters rippling in the wind. It's the River Ouse, where Woolf drowned herself. Leibovitz notes that a few weeks after finishing Between the Acts, Woolf "took a walk before lunch and didn't return." We know the tragedy aroused by this image, but it is trite that Virginia Woolf be simplified to these four photographs: sun-blotted trees, the desk, the desk through a window, and the River Ouse. It just proves that even on a personal pilgrimage, Leibovitz will still photograph the most iconic object in the room. Other cameos in Pilgrimage include Freud's bookshelf with an edition of Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Lincoln's hat, O'Keeffe's palette, Darwin's skeletons, Annie Oakley's bulleted red heart, and Ansel Adams's darkroom.

Annie Leibovitz has thin, wispy blonde hair, wears all black suiting that doesn't really fit properly and clunky hiking boots. Despite her height, she still blends in with a crowd. When prompted, she said that she nearly cried over the image quality in Pilgrimage, the book. More than anything, the book forces the images into postcard size where they read as such. Even in the gallery they are postcards, beautiful images from her "pilgrimage" where she stood with her kids at Niagara Falls, tried to copy an Ansel Adams landscape, and went to see Spiral Jetty. These are just Annie Leibovitz postcards. Let's hope that means she'll be home soon.

Originally published in THE magazine, April 2013