The renowned photographer, Annie Leibovitz, came to Santa Fe in order to promote her new book and traveling exhibition, “Pilgrimage”. She termed it a “sabbatical” in the sense that she had become tired of the pressure of working for magazines such a Rolling Stone and wanted to do a project just for herself.
Between 2009 and 2011 she picked about a dozen places in the United States and England that had significance to her, either in a literary or historical sense. The places were as diverse as Lincoln Memorial, Graceland, Sigmund Freud’s study and Virginia Woolf’s summer home in Surrey. It was her first project done only with a digital camera.
I have never been so aware of the differences between a reproduction and the original as I have been in the last couple of weeks. We first heard her speak to a packed house at the Lensic Theater. She showed slides mostly from her exhibition and while I found her talk very interesting I was not taken by the photography. I attributed this to the fact that she had ventured into the world of still life, landscape and historic places instead of her amazing close-ups of the likes of John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Demi Moore.
When I saw the actual exhibition presented at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum I realized that the slides had missed the quality and immediacy of the work. Then I bought the catalog and there was a third version of the images somewhere between the two former experiences. I buy very few photography books these days because they all fall so far short of the originals but this one is so much better than most. It seems to be laid out by the artist herself with historical information interspersed among double-page bleeds, the emphasis being on the latter.
What is fascinating is the fact that Leibovitz refers to herself as a historian and one sees that she is. She has gone into depth with each of her subjects and when she explains the context one understands the images so much better.
She went to Sigmund Freud’s home in London where she photographed his famous couch and the carpet in front. It is in many respects very reminiscent of Vermeer. Even though there are no figures one can imagine the patient on the couch and Freud sitting on the other side of the camera. Penelope pointed out that her focal point was, however, the opposite of Vermeer’s. He painted his center point in perfect focus and his foreground some what out of focus as if he were using a longer focal length than Leibovitz. In Leibovitz’s case her foreground carpet is in perfect focus with the couch being the slightest bit off. In a strange way it makes the image seem less photographic than Vermeer’s!
When she visited Virginia Woolf’s home the person who was supposed to show Leibovitz around was not yet there to let her in, so she photographed through a window, creating a atmospheric image of the home. In this series there was also a picture of a choppy river, and while the photo is most evocative I did not understand how it fit into the narrative. One thing I enjoy is when the work of art speaks for itself but the story behind it gives one a whole different dimension. In this case, Annie Leibovitz walked along the river that Virginia Woolf swam in every day and where she drowned in 1941.
In her somewhat informal talk she spoke about some of her heroes and I learned that many were mine as well. Abraham Lincoln is an obvious choice for anyone, but less obvious is the folk singer Pete Seeger, who like Lincoln cleared some woods and build a log cabin in which to raise his family. When I was a teenager I frequented various folk music clubs in Greenwich Village and I learned that Leivowitz enjoyed listening while she worked to what her assistants referred to as Kumbaya music. I have been accused of similar preferences.