Annie Leibovitz is widely (and fairly enough) considered as one of America’s best portrait photographers. Over her career as photographer for Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair she captured the greatest musicians, actors and artists of the boomer generation.
Leibovitz’s portraits tell about famousness, beauty, and power. She is known for her ability to make her sitters become physically involved in her work, and her trademark technique involves the use of bold primary colors and surprising poses. Even if you do not know her name, it is very likely you already contemplated some of her most famous shots: The Rolling Stones’ tour in 1975, the famous nude session with John Lennon and Yoko Ono hours before Lennon was killed, the American Express and Gap campaigns, Whoopi Goldberg in a bathtub of milk, or Demi Moore pregnant and naked on the cover of Vanity Fair.
But there are no people in “Pilgrimage”. No celebrities, no models, no V.I.P.’s. The exhibition is about something else entirely. It actually shows the legendary photographer pursuing a more personal project. For once, she wasn’t on assignment, and chose the subjects simply because they meant something to her. `
Nevertheless, you can feel that the photographer’s fascination with icons continues. But in this case, they’re historical and personal ones. Following the footsteps of her own heroes, she went to their homes, studios, or also places that evoke their spirit. She photographed the things that are most representatives of their owners, from the television Elvis Presley shot out in a fit of pique to the gloves and hat Abraham Lincoln wore the night he was assassinated For instance. A series that is quite moving is the one where she photographed Sigmund Freud’s reclining couch, draped in a Persian rug, as well as his collection of books on sex and psyche by Havelock Ellis. One can picture the doctor’s patient lying there and speaking, or Freud elaborating theories about unconscious. It has a solemn, almost spiritual feel.
And this is why I have mixed feelings about this exhibition: it shows a surprisingly ghostly, almost chilling collection of object and places. The dead idols are still present in the photographs, and to me it was somewhat disturbing. The feeling of loneliness, quietness you have watching the photographs is strengthened by the fact the artist is quite “out of the frame”. You do not feel any kind of her artistic presence: no irony, no pose, no sense of humor. It is clear Leibovitz took those pictures for herself, but at the same time they do not say a lot about her personally. As her public, I think I had a hard time understanding what she wanted to say, if I did at all.