Sunday, December 18, 2011

Day 18: Annie Leibovitz Does It Again

Welcome to Day 18 in our 24 Days of Books. Although the publication of any collection of Annie Leibovitz’s photographs is an occasion to be celebrated, I must admit that I was lukewarm when I was told about this new one, called Pilgrimage. For starters, the book was to be full of photographs with no people in them. What? That’s what we know and love Ms. Leibovitz for: her penetrating portraits of people both famous and obscure. So now she’s doing landscape photography or something?

And now I will admit how wrong I was. Landscape photography? Hardly.

Pilgrimage is a look at rooms, historical artifacts, and incidental objects as well as wide, open spaces. The things she has photographed are significant to the artist. There are the houses of Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Louisa May Alcott. And within these houses, rooms full of paintings, mementos, and other signs of domestic life:  Ms. Woolf’s writing desk. Ms. Dickinson’s only surviving dress. A bird specimen collected by Mr. Darwin on the voyage of the Beagle. Dr. Freud’s carpet-covered sofa. A silver serving dish from Mrs. Roosevelt’s family.

The landscapes are varied and carry great meaning for Ms. Leibovitz. “From the beginning, when I was watching my children stand mesmerized over Niagara Falls, it was an exercise in renewal," she says.  “It taught me to see again.”  So we look through her eyes at Yosemite Valley, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty earthwork on the shore of the Great Salt Lake, The Isle of Wight, Thomas Jefferson’s garden at Monticello, the site of Henry Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond, the river where Ms. Woolf drowned.

This is perhaps her most revealing book. By sharing with the reader places and objects that are important to her (some of these are famous, but many are not), she has created an intensely personal and idiosyncratic narrative that includes so much more than can be talked about in this one little blog. Pete Seeger’s cabin and workshop. Lincoln’s handwritten address at Gettysburg, and the gloves and hat he wore the night of his death. Old props from Martha Graham’s studio. Georgia O’Keeffe’s collection of rocks and bones. A concert gown worn by Marian Anderson. So much.

The text that Ms. Leibovitz wrote to accompany these photographs is elegant and informative. The book also features an introduction by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Despite my original apprehension, I do not hesitate to recommend it.

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