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If Annie Leibovitz is the high priestess of American celebrity photography, then what is “Pilgrimage,” her new exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum? In part, it’s a departure, but it contains plenty of same-old.
Leibovitz crisscrossed the United States and England for the project, which is billed as a “personal journey into her cultural inheritance.” Andy Grundberg, the exhibit’s guest curator, describes it as the first time in years Leibovitz hasn’t been “on assignment.” Instead, she followed her muse—which seems to have rather eclectic taste, spanning from Charles Darwin and Virginia Woolf to Annie Oakley and Elvis Presley.
There’s no Whoopi Goldberg dropped in a tub of milk, or Demi Moore with a dress suit painted on her naked body. The subjects of Leibovitz’s peripatetic “Pilgrimage” are historically significant locales—from Thomas Jefferson’s vegetable garden to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s dining room to Georgia O’Keeffe’s bed—and relics of the deceased, like the gloves Abraham Lincoln wore when he was assassinated and a book of pressed plants that belonged to a young Emily Dickinson.
In the most obvious sense, these images couldn’t look more different from Leibovitz’s work for Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair. In place of living, collaborating, heavily styled famous people, we see spartan, tattered spaces now inhabited by ghosts, along with a parade of humble items (a top hat, a handwritten journal, a pair of split-open lima bean pods).
But while these images are infinitely less fancy than Leibovitz’s usual subject matter—for what it’s worth, they’re also her first extended foray into digital photography—the subjects of “Pilgrimage” are notable only because figures we’ve heard of once touched them. (Frankly, some of the images are only notable because Leibovitz took them. But that’s a separate matter.)
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So are these images more than just an intellectually gussied-up versions of Leibovitz’s celebrity work? Sort of.
Many of interior photographs are drab and not especially compelling, like a portion of a wallpapered surface in Presley’s childhood home in Tupelo, Miss. Too many of the objects are similarly dull. In one, Leibovitz inexplicably focuses on a small portion of a dress Dickinson wore, giving little sense of the object as a whole. (Leibovitz’s photograph of a gown worn by Marian Anderson is more fully realized; she laid it out on the floor like a body in repose.) Somehow, Leibovitz even finds a listless image of leaves at Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s ordinarily compelling Farnsworth House in Plano, Ill.
Still, Leibovitz offers a few worthwhile tropes. Perhaps not surprisingly, the history of photography recurs frequently, not just in her pilgrimage to Ansel Adams’ darkroom but in her focus on a cracked and fragile glass negative of an Abraham Lincoln portrait, and in her attention to what Emerson hung on his wall: images by the great western photographer Carleton Watkins.
Only a few of Leibovitz’s individual objects work particularly well. Two of those that do, eerily enough, involve gunshots—the television set Elvis famously fired at and a small card printed with a red heart that Oakley used for target practice during her Wild West shows.
Once Leibovitz moves outside, she’s on more comfortable ground—not a surprise, actually, to those familiar with her underrated, spooky, black-and-white images of the Shawangunk Mountains of New York, showcased at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 2001. A number of Leibovitz’s landscape photographs are striking—a view of a house near the Gettysburg battlefield in pitch-perfect autumnal moodiness, for instance, and a trio of varied and compelling portrayals of Yosemite Valley. (Unlike Adams, to whom she pays homage, Leibovitz’s images are in color, with memorable highlights of purple and peach.)
In this exhibit, at least, Leibovitz proves particularly adept at chronicling water. Her visit to misty, roiling Niagara Falls produces a mesmerizing image of a seemingly veined surface in the color of jade; the deep blue surface of England’s River Ouse, where Woolf drowned herself, is both figuratively and literally unsettled.
On the whole, Leibovitz’s exhibit has the distinct feel of looking backward, not just because of the empty homes on display but because of the photographer’s near-creepy fascination with death relics and decades-old animal specimens and skeletons. Then again, pilgrimages aren’t supposed to look at the future, are they? —Louis Jacobson