Annie Leibovitz on Susan Sontag, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Her Bucket List

The New York Historical Society show marks a departure from portraiture.

© Annie Leibovitz. From “Pilgrimage” (Random House, 2011)

Annie Leibovitz, on a press walk-through a new exhibition opening tomorrow at the New-York Historical Society, “Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage,” shared with us a heartfelt memory of her late partner Susan Sontag. “Susan and I were always thinking about ways to scheme to get to travel somewhere,” she began. “For her 60th birthday, I took her to the pyramids in Egypt, and we actually illegally crawled on [them] from the back. I was not making it, and she just passed me. She was 60 years old, so I just said to myself,  ‘Okay, I guess I  have to do this.’ But we would think of places to go, like the Amazon or the Taj Mahal, and obviously we never got to do those things…but, as I was thinking about this new project, I started to wonder, ‘Well, what’s on my list?'”

A departure from the carefully staged portraiture for which she is renowned, the 64 photographs on view in Pilgrimage show nary a human figure. Instead, these “notes,” as she calls them, function as a symbolic homage to several of Leibovitz’s artistic influences, including Sontag, as well as artists and photographers, such as Ansel Adams, Robert Smithson, and Georgia O’Keeffe. The works also pay homage to the spirit of the great American road trip. It’s quite a bucket list that Leibovitz has managed to tackle in just two years. All the photographs in the show were taken between 2009 and 2011, and from Niagara Falls to Spiral Jetty to Walden Pond; it’s all here.

Leibovitz also visited the homes of several American icons including Emily Dickinson, Henry David Thoreau, and Abraham Lincoln. In her documentation of their homes and belongings, she has created intimate portraits of people who can no longer be captured on film. It’s amazing how objects can so easily serve as stand-ins for people when they are artfully presented, as in these photos.

Speaking of her time visiting O’Keeffe’s home in Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, Leibovitz admitted that despite (or perhaps because) of the fact that O’Keeffe rendered the door to her home so many times in paint, it resonated with her. “I did decide to do the door in her house, for the reason that she bought the house because of the door.”

But never fear, Leibovitz has no intention of abandoning her signature portraits. “People used to be so surprised when they would interview me and I would say that I do research. But who doesn’t do research? So this is really my research, this is the note taking. I want to be clear about that: my work hasn’t changed. This is my work. This is what I do.”

If you need proof, check out her latest work for Vanity Fair, a portrait of 14 major female gallerists in the style of a 1982 Hans Namuth photo. Leibovitz also let it slip that she’s gearing up to photograph an unnamed woman with a “very famous art collection” comprised of “many artists who were friends of hers.” Any guesses?

Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage will be on display at the New York Historical Society from November 21, 2014–February 22, 2015.

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