Photographer Annie Leibovitz is known for her intimate portraits of celebrities: Her Rolling Stone cover shot of John Lennon curled around Yoko Ono is one of the most famous. But starting in the spring of 2009, after snapping a vertiginous view of Niagara Falls on a trip to the tourist shrine with her children, she embarked on a private journey of sorts, traveling around the country visiting historic homes, memorials and other kinds of famous national sites and cultural icons. Using a small digital camera, she photographed places and objects that evoked the past lives of famous people, from Henry Thoreau’s bed to Emily Dickinson’s dress to the hat that Abraham Lincoln was wearing the night he was assassinated to the card painted with a heart that served as a target for Annie Oakley. People are noticeably absent from the photographs, but the personal nature of many of the objects, conflated with the archetypal, turns that absence into a vibrating presence, and the photographer serves as a kind of surrogate of the long-dead.
Currently featured in an exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the photos have also been compiled into a book, titled Pilgrimage. As part of her book-promotion tour, Leibovitz will be giving a talk at the Wallace Visitor Center at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Home and Presidential Library in Hyde Park on Sunday, March 11. The lecture starts at 3 p.m. and will be followed by a book-signing. Reservations are required – seating is limited and seats have been going fast – so don’t delay in visiting https://roosevelt-vanderbilt.eventbrite.com.
Leibovitz has said that the project was a response to a difficult point in her life, following the death of her longtime partner Susan Sontag in 2004. The project is unique in that it was completely intuitive – a break from her usual way of working on assignment. Artists play a special role in the book: Leibovitz visited the homes of Ansel Adams, Georgia O’Keeffe and other painters, photographers and choreographers, as well as monumental works of art such as Robert Smithson’s famous earthwork Spiral Jetty. She has said in interviews that she experienced a sense of renewal in making those connections. But let her tell you her story yourself, by heading down to the Wallace Center on March 11.