Annie Leibovitz had hit a pretty rough patch in life by 2009. She had lost her longtime lover Susan Sontag, as well as her father, and was in the midst of a public financial crisis that put the rights to all of her photographs up for collateral in exchange for $15.5 million.
So, in order to reset and “replenish” her soul, as she told The Daily Beast in 2011, Leibovitz, 65, set out traveling from coast to coast and sometimes abroad, visiting the homes and historical landmarks of people who meant the most to her, among them Sigmund Freud, Elvis Presley, Emily Dickinson, Ansel Adams, and Charles Darwin.
The notes she took were taken not in words but in her signature style, in photographs that now have been collected for an exhibition, Pilgrimage, which can be seen at the New-York Historical Society starting Friday.
“It’s not unusual for me to turn to my work in times of trouble,” Leibovitz told The Daily Beast, comparing Pilgrimage to airplane emergency protocols. “They tell you to put the oxygen mask on yourself before you take care of your kid. My greatest relationship has been my work, and this was my way of taking care of [myself].”
The journey is relayed through 78 images clustered in white frames for an intimate feel. They are in stark contrast to the images we have all come to know her for—perfectly lit portraits of celebrities and musicians, either stripped down or dressed up in fantastical or otherworldly settings. She’s captured everyone from John Lennon and Yoko Ono for Rolling Stone to Miley Cyrus swaddled in a bedsheet for Vanity Fair. Vogue’s epic cover shoot of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian was captured through her lens.
The subjects for Pilgrimage, on the other hand, are intimate objects. There is Henry David Thoreau’s bamboo bed, which surprised Leibovitz with its sophistication (“I thought Thoreau slept on nails,” she joked). The overhead image, which was captured in a single frame, reveals every detail of the bed Thoreau custom-made and eventually died on.
Virginia Woolf’s desk, also shot from above, reveals every mishap it encountered—branded with cigarette burns and splattered with ink spills. “To me, it says that art and life are messy,” Leibovitz said of the author’s desk, which she described as one of her favorite images from the series and related to the financial troubles she faced and all of life’s upsets.
The image is also a bit of a nod to her partner of roughly 15 years, writer and filmmaker Susan Sontag, who passed away from leukemia in 2004.
“Susan and I had made a list, but it was much more sophisticated,” Leibovitz said of their plans to travel to the pyramids of Egypt (which they did), the Amazon, and the Seven Wonders of the World before Sontag’s death. “And there is definitely a bit of Susan in this [with] Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf,” she said. Even though Leibovitz’s relationship with Sontag has never been defined publicly, the photographer has said calling them “lovers” is accurate.
Leibovitz’s own voice emerges in various artifacts of Abraham Lincoln, who fascinates her to no end. “I’ve cleared living rooms discussing the Civil War, just boring people to death,” she joked.
This cluster of Lincoln-inspired images captures the essence of his time: Lincoln’s gloves and top hat from the night he was assassinated, negatives from one of his portrait sessions, the first for a president, and the site of one of Gettysburg’s most infamous “staged” photos—boulders dubbed “Devil’s Den,” where a dead soldier was propped and photographed during one of the bloodiest battle of the Civil War.
“The deeper I got into the project, the more I realized that I became attracted to objects,” Leibovitz said. “I was so surprised because it’s not my kind of picture—it’s just nerve-wracking. How do you get an emotional picture from an object like [British photographer] Julia [Margaret Cameron]’s lens?” she asked, motioning to her photograph of the camera accessory.
Leibovitz found the emotional resonance she was seeking to capture with the same method she uses for her portraits—through note-taking. But this time, the notes were captured in photographs. “It’s just like what you see when I build information to finally take a portrait,” she said. “Unfortunately, these people are not here anymore.”
For her next project, the idea of a “pilgrimage” plays another role. The assignment, for Anna Wintour at Vogue, will pay homage to the magazine’s former art director Alexander Liberman and will capture artists in their studios, much as Liberman did during his 50-year career.