So it is a bit of a surprise to see this subaltern handmaiden of the fame industry create a new body of work, on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, that is almost entirely free of portraits. “Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage,” which opened Jan. 20, is billed as an intimate look at a personal journey she made during a period of emotional and spiritual crisis. Punctuated by the occasional image of the American sublime — the enormous torrent of Niagara Falls captured from above, the iconic plume of a geyser at Yellowstone National Park — Leibovitz’s pilgrimage is a photo record of her visits to the homes, gardens and stamping grounds of some of her favorite dead people.
She had planned a project called the “Beauty Book,” a collaboration with her longtime friend and companion Susan Sontag, the critic and polymath who died of cancer in 2004.
“After Susan died, I knew that I couldn’t do the Beauty Book,” writes Leibovitz in an essay that accompanies the exhibition. “As time passed, I realized that I might do a different book, with a different list of places. The list would, inevitably, be colored by my memory of Susan and what she was interested in, but it would be my list.”
That list took form slowly, and as it did, Leibovitz performed the stations of her pilgrimage with camera equipment in tow. The results are eclectic but mostly reflect the heroic pantheon of the bookish liberal establishment: Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, Virginia Woolf, Georgia O’Keeffe, Eleanor Roosevelt. Among the 64 photographs culled for the Smithsonian exhibition are images of Freud’s sofa; a rattlesnake skeleton displayed in the Abiquiu, N.M., home of O’Keeffe; a television set disfigured by a bullet hole, once owned by Elvis Presley; and the woven-cane bed that Thoreau slept on while at Walden Pond.
There isn’t much internal logic to this cabinet of curiosities, although in several cases photo curator Andy Grundberg has created dreamlike juxtapositions. Putting Freud’s couch and the darkroom of Ansel Adams in proximity suggests the unconscious of the photographic process, the hidden manipulations that lead to the polished surface of the printed image. The primal power of water at Niagara Falls, Yellowstone’s Old Faithful and the Spiral Jetty (an earthwork sculpture by Robert Smithson that is often submerged by the Great Salt Lake in Utah) suggests, respectively: deep emotional undercurrents, irruptive psychic forces and the play of surface and depth that governs so much of how we think about ourselves and the world.