Imagine some of the entertainment world’s most memorable photographs, and chances are Annie Leibovitz was behind them: a naked John Lennon intertwined with Yoko on the cover of Rolling Stone, Demi Moore, pregnant and nude, on an issue of Vanity Fair, Bruce Springsteen’s denim-clad backside set against an American flag on his “Born in the U.S.A.” album cover. Leibovitz has all but cornered the market on capturing famous personalities (often in varying states of undress).
But “Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage,” which opens Friday at the American Art Museum, purports to show a different side of the prolific artist. There are more than 60 photos on display but not one human face. This is what it looks like when Leibovitz shoots off the clock and without a commission; she captured the images while traveling (mainly) across the United States from 2009 to 2011. While ads for the show, and the cover of the companion book, display the photographer’s large-scale landscape shots, there’s still an undeniable sense that this is a show about portraits. The difference is that the big names in this show are no longer alive and their personalities are pieced together by what they left behind. The result is a cabinet of curiosities — a pigeon skeleton once belonging to Charles Darwin, Louisa May Alcott’s dolls and a leafy botanical specimen from John Muir’s collection — that sheds light on history’s memorable characters.
Leibovitz’s curated list of luminaries happens to be heavy on talented women and transcendentalists. In the former category, visitors can expect to find a photographic display of Annie Oakley’s shooting skills, a close-up of the eyelet on Emily Dickinson’s only surviving dress and a look at Georgia O’Keeffe’s homemade pastels. One affecting display offers side-by-side images of Virginia Woolf’s ink-stained desk as well as the dark blue wake of River Ouse, where the author drowned herself in 1941.
The show mainly steers clear of pop culture icons, although Elvis Presley gets his due. When Leibovitz visited Graceland, she captured one of the musician’s motorcycles, a television that Presley shot and the King’s final, ostentatious resting place. There is no evidence of Elvis’s music career, yet the photos offer insight into his personality.
At a news conference this morning, guest curator Andy Grundberg called the show “in a sense, a history project.” And that’s true, but instead of getting a sweeping view of events or chronology, museum-goers get something unexpected — a look at some of memory lane’s quirkier diversions.