Annie Leibovitz hadn’t planned to visit Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House last summer. But she was in Concord, Mass., to see Walden Pond, and as she puts it, she kept “tripping over it again and again and again.”

Once inside, “I was captivated,” Leibovitz says. She began photographing the home where Alcott wrote and set “Little Women,” as well as the items in it. She was particularly drawn to three dolls owned by the Alcotts. She wanted to shoot the toys displayed on a miniature couch purchased by Alcott’s father, but it was covered in plain cotton, not the handsome dark horsehair it had originally sported.

“We went all over the house, trying to set up those dolls in different ways,” says Jan Turnquist, Orchard House’s executive director. “We tried everything, and nothing really suited [Leibovitz]. She felt those dolls had a real personality, and she wanted them to be together, and they looked so perfect on the sofa, except for its fabric.”

So, Leibovitz (who joined the museum’s board of directors after that visit) offered to pay for the sofa to be restored to its original appearance, and she returned a few months later to capture her ideal image. The photo is now part of Leibovitz’s new show, “Pilgrimage,” which runs through May 20 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The 64 photos on view are drawn from her book of the same name, published last year.

Annie Leibovitz shot this image of Niagara Falls “in the middle of a very difficult time in my life,” she says. She was millions of dollars in debt and facing the possibility of losing control of her life’s work. On a trip to the falls with her kids, she was “sitting off to the side, feeling a little down” when she noticed her kids were completely “in awe” of the natural spectacle in front of them. She joined them and took this photo.

Object Lessons
Aside from the Orchard House dolls, all of the subjects in “Pilgrimage” — a wide-ranging collection of objects, landmarks and landscapes from across the U.S. and England — were photographed just as Leibovitz encountered them. Most shots have a clear connection to well-known individuals of the past (opera singer Marian Anderson’s concert gown, Abraham Lincoln’s top hat, Ansel Adams’ photo studio) or showcase locations that have a sense of character all their own (Niagara Falls, Monticello, Graceland). There’s life in all of the images, but no living beings in any.

Photographing inanimate objects would seem like a relief for Leibovitz, who has had to manage the egos and attitudes of famous subjects over a four-decade career of shooting portraits for outlets such as Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair. But she says the transition was surprisingly difficult.

“I don’t want to say I thought it would be easier,” she says, “but I thought I’d see something and be moved. And I saw something and I was moved, but I couldn’t always control where it was. I couldn’t always photograph something the way I wanted. I had to come to terms … with starting to photograph objects. It was a learning process.”

At the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, N.M., Annie Leibovitz photographed a box of the artist’s pastels. “Here’s her palette, the colors that are in her landscapes,” Leibovitz explains. “To me, it’s just very powerful.”

Legend Turned Tourist
Leibovitz says that the “Pilgrimage” project was, in part, a history lesson. She started her documenting journey in 2009 with a list of more than a dozen places that resonated with her, and those destinations led to others. (Twenty-seven are included in her book.)

“You don’t do something like this without thinking of it in an educational way,” she says. She purposely hung the pieces in the show low for young visitors, and she dedicated her book to her 10-year-old daughter and 6-year-old twin girls. Her children were the ones who inspired her to take a shot of Niagara Falls. “Your children show you the way,” she says.

For the most part, Leibovitz was shooting her pictures like anybody else who visits a museum or historic setting: as a visitor not permitted to touch her surroundings. The restrictions had an oddly equalizing effect on her process — and the resulting photos: Leibovitz’s shot of an atmospheric room containing Sigmund Freud’s blanket-covered couch at the Freud Museum in London “is pretty close to the postcard that you can buy in the gift shop,” she admits. She says her shot of Niagara Falls is “a photo anyone can take.”

But guest curator Andy Grundberg won’t minimize any of the pieces in “Pilgrimage,” emphasizing the collection’s significance in the wider canon of contemporary art. “I don’t think any other contemporary artist, photographer or not, has really gone back and seen an examination of American icons from the past the way that Annie has here,” Grundberg says. “There’s a sense of her looking back and visually trying to express something about the way the culture we have now was formed.”

There is indeed something larger at work in “Pilgrimage.” “It was definitely a search,” Leibovitz says. “When you take away the captions and you look at just the pictures by themselves … you can see there’s some searching going on. It’s all the things we search for: a reason to be alive, to go on, to do things. There’s a whole list there.”

Smithsonian American Art Museum, 8th and F streets NW; through May 20, free; 202-633-7970. (Gallery Place)