In her storied career, photographer Annie Leibovitz has taken some of the most talked-about celebrity portraits of our time, from the very nude, very pregnant Demi Moore to John Lennon, curled up and clutching Yoko Ono only hours before his death.
At 62, Leibovitz has also scored solo exhibitions at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., Brooklyn Museum, and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. So why is her latest exhibition opening at the tiny Concord Museum? Credit, in part, a pair of locals: Concord Museum Director Peggy Burke and Jan Turnquist, executive director of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House nearby.
“We went after it,” said Burke. “We just felt this was a game changer for us.”
“Pilgrimage” is not what you might expect from Leibovitz. You won’t see anything from the cover of Vanity Fair. In fact, the exhibition features no living subjects. Instead, Leibovitz documents a personal journey that led her to the homes, desk drawers, and landscapes associated with a group of historical figures, among them Eleanor Roosevelt, Ansel Adams, and Abraham Lincoln.
The Concord connection is also obvious. Leibovitz’s journey took her to the town more than a half-dozen times to document the lives of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Alcott. After some pleading, she also got historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, a longtime Concordian, to write the forward to the accompanying book.
Last week, Leibovitz, wearing all black with hiking boots, sat down for an interview at the Concord Museum.
Q. The first question, for me, is sort of obvious. You’re a famous portraitist. Yet there are no living people in “Pilgrimage.”
A. I am a portrait photographer. I’m not an object photographer or a landscape photographer. These are notes. This is a notebook. This is the peripheral vision, the things you see that you take in to create a portrait.
Q. Notes? To me, these are fully realized photographs in a museum.
A. Look at the way people are using their iPhones now. They want to remember something. Rather than write it down, they’re taking their iPhone and making a visual note. I’m seeing it more and more. I have a friend who is a cook and who is writing a book on cooking. She’s on a farm. She takes a picture of what corn looks like. I’m doing what anyone else is doing now except I’m using a little bit of a bigger camera.
Q. Well, these aren’t what my iPhone photographs look like. So we don’t want to say, this is Annie Leibovitz as landscape photographer.
A. It’s so hard. I didn’t want them to compete with a landscape photographer, an interior photographer. I wasn’t saying I was doing that kind of work. I really did do this for myself. To feed my head, my heart, my soul. Hence, it’s a small project for me. I don’t want to make any pretense that it’s anything other than what it is.
If it inspires anyone else to go out and swim in Walden Pond, great. It’s a great country. You don’t have to go far. The most important difference is I’m not doing this on demand. I’m doing this when I feel moved to. That’s huge.
Q. You started this project by chance. You were at a bar mitzvah in Amherst and wandered into Emily Dickinson’s house and took a few snapshots. You were depressed, had financial problems, and were frustrated with magazine work. And then you had this trip to Niagara Falls where you went to a motel with your children and your credit card gets rejected.
A. That’s probably the best story in the book because it sort of answered everyone’s questions. I wanted to get it out of the way. What happened in Niagara Falls sort of propelled me in the project. I knew I was onto something. I think what we’re talking about is bringing back your feelings.
Q. And you ended up taking this amazing photograph of Niagara Falls, which is the cover of the book.
A. My kids totally gave me that photograph. They were staring at it and I walked up behind them and took that photograph. It’s their vision. It’s not mine.
Q. Talk about coming to Concord.
A. I came to Concord really for Walden Pond. I didn’t really know anything about anything. I got to Walden Pond and saw a lot of people swimming. It turned out to be a very famous beach. I went to the site of Thoreau’s house.
From Thoreau’s, I went to Emerson’s house and then I discovered the Concord Museum and then I kept driving back and forth and noticed the Orchard House. This is a very rich area. I had to really rip myself away and pull myself away from Concord. I could have done my whole book from Concord.
Q. There’s a photo of the Thoreau site in the book but not in the museum show. The sun is coming up and you can see the water. It’s a beautiful image and a long way from a beach full of screaming toddlers. I also love the photograph from Emerson’s living room, which is also in the book.
A. The Walden picture is a little bit of a Robert Smithson picture to me. A site-specific environmental portrait. When you finally get to the house site you think, what’s that pile of rocks doing there? The pile of rocks, to me, sort of emphasized that search for what I was looking for at Walden. At some level, it wasn’t there for me. What was there was this remembrance of an idea from Thoreau of going off on your own and living in nature. The rocks were a monument to that.
The book ends with [Smithson’s] “Spiral Jetty.” Earthworks are impressive to me. I think of Christo’s “Running Fence” and so to me, there was sculpture there, an earthwork at Walden Pond.
Those windows, looking out Emerson’s room, it’s pretty poignant. He said he didn’t feel well, he sat in that chair and then he died looking out those windows. It took me several trips here.
Q. Tell me more about what you were feeling when you started “Pilgrimage.” You called it your mid- to late-life crisis.
A. The issues at hand, they were big. I wanted confidence back. I wanted to know that I could take good pictures. I didn’t like the photography I was doing. I felt trapped in a corner.
Q. What obstacles? I mean, we, from the outside, look at you and say ‘Annie Leibovitz, she just calls up Graydon Carter or another magazine editor and takes what she wants.’
A. Well, you do need to sell the magazine. They need a cover that is commercial. They do literally sit there in meetings trying to figure out how to sell the magazine. If it doesn’t sell well, they blame you.
That combined with the financial stuff. As an artist, I gave the business stuff to other people to handle and that was stupid and that will never happen again.
Q. And somewhere in there, as you worked on “Pilgrimage,” you felt a sense of what you call renewal.
A. About midway through. As an artist, you work and you work and the photographer’s life helped me over a hump. Partly through this I realize I’m renewed now.
Q. I imagine that means going back and doing more of the work you’re famous for.
A. In the next week, I have to fly to Colorado and do Ralph Lauren and then fly to France to do Karl Lagerfeld and then to Milan to do Giorgio Armani. This is all for Vanity Fair.
I love my work. I am so lucky to have my work. I needed to take care of it and put all my stuff back into it.
Q. Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote the forward. I know you’re not friends but you saw her speak at an event about Norman Mailer’s home in Provincetown and what it feels like for young writers to go and see exactly where he worked.
A. She actually turned me down a few times. She didn’t have time. I finally said, ‘I’ll take your picture. Can I throw that in?’ She finally said yes. It’s a very beautiful story because the book has come out and I‘ve been trying to set up a portrait session with her, and she came back to me and she said, ‘I don’t really want a picture of myself, but will you do a portrait of my family, my husband and my boys?’ I was so moved by that.
Q. Sounds like you’ll have to come back to Concord.