CONCORD — Annie Leibovitz is probably the world’s most famous living photographer, and it’s fame that made her famous. Her portraits of rock stars for Rolling Stone made her a photographic rock star, and her portraits of celebrities of all sorts for Vanity Fair and Vogue have made her almost as well-known as her subjects.
“Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage,” which runs at the Concord Museum through Sept. 23, is ostensibly about places and things — places and things that have some larger spiritual or cultural significance for the photographer. On a personal level, they are like sacred sites and religious relics.
“This project was an exercise in renewal,” Leibovitz has said. “It taught me to see again.” Renewal is not the same thing as development or departure. Almost all of the photographs in the show relate in some way to a famous individual: Ralph Waldo Emerson’s study, Virginia Woolf’s desktop, Lewis and Clark’s compass, the hat Abraham Lincoln wore the night he was killed. It’s telling that the most pedestrian photographs in the show — of Old Faithful, Yosemite, Niagara Falls — don’t relate to a specific personality. Without a star to hitch her wagon to, Leibovitz can’t get that wagon to go very far.
The hanging of the show doesn’t do her any favors. Seventy-five photographs in three rooms is a lot of pictures in not a lot of rooms. They need to breathe more. In addition to being crowded, the images also feel a little lost individually. White frames, narrow mattes, and white walls make for far too subdued a visual effect.
ANNIE LEIBOVITZ: Pilgrimage
There’s a lot of gleam in these pictures. Sometimes it’s a powerful enhancement; the close-up photograph of Julia Margaret Cameron’s camera lens could be a jewel that was made by machine rather than geology. More often, the gleam seems like overkill. The job of celebrity photographers is to make sure celebrities look their best, and that’s no less true when the celebrities are dead and what’s being photographed are their appurtenances.
Actually, one of the celebrities is still very much alive. Pete Seeger’s workshop is so crammed with tools it could be Ali Baba’s cave, assuming Ali Baba lived near a Home Depot. The space is a marvel, funky and unexpected, and Leibovitz’s photograph communicates that. Obviously, the room’s contents matter to its owner, and you can feel that they matter to Leibovitz, too. There’s nothing reflexive about any sense of reverence.
A similar sense of the unexpected — of personal connection, too — informs a close-up image of the television whose screen Elvis Presley famously blasted with a pistol. The spider web of cracks radiating out from the bullet hole is at once hilarious and eloquent. (The picture chimes quite wonderfully with another close-up view of a bullet hole, in the middle of one of Annie Oakley’s targets.) None of the show’s four other Elvis photographs have the spark of crazed surprise offered by that decommissioned TV.
Details can add a lot, and the more mundane they are the better. The hanger and tag on a gown once worn by Marian Anderson make us see it as an actual garment instead of just an artifact. The veins and ribs of a specimen leaf collected by John Muir bear witness that this was once a living thing. The labels and stencils on the trunks in a warehouse where Martha Graham’s props are stored provide an antidote to the picture’s waxworks illumination. The image could almost be a Dutch interior; the light is that weighty and noble. Maybe the space naturally looks that way (maybe), but the effect would be a lot less inert if the room appeared a little, well, dumpier.
Dumpy the Farnsworth House is not. Leibovitz’s photograph of the Modernist masterpiece designed by Mies van der Rohe, outside of Chicago, might be the show’s emblematic image. Shot from the inside looking out through one of the house’s picture windows, it’s clear, lovely, and empty. The trees visible outside seem as much under glass as on the other side of the glass.
There’s little emotion communicated by these photographs. Emotion may well have been felt. It fails to come across, though. No photographs as attractive as these could be described as just dutiful, but there’s hardly any sense of compulsion or necessity here. They’re a series of assignments — as if taken on class trips, not pilgrimages.
Leibovitz is a far more proficient photographer than Patti Smith is. Yet so many of the images in Smith’s show from last winter at the Wadsworth Atheneum, “Patti Smith: Camera Solo,” have just the quality of personal commitment and intensity largely absent here. When Smith photographs Woolf’s bed, you almost expect Mrs. Dalloway to be under the covers. When Leibovitz photographs Woolf’s writing studio, you wonder if Nicole Kidman’s still in her dressing room.
The Concord Museum’s exhibiting “Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage” is a real coup. This isn’t the Rolling Stones playing a club. It’s the Rolling Stones playing a club in the western suburbs. Nine of the photographs were taken in Concord, so it’s fitting that the exhibit be shown here. Its presence will no doubt introduce the museum to many visitors who otherwise wouldn’t have come here. They will find their visit rewarding, though likely as much for the museum’s permanent collection as for the show that brought them. Having seen that photograph of Emerson’s study, they can walk down a flight of stairs and see the room itself.