A Portraitist Breaks Free of Faces

A celebrity photographer escapes to rural America to recharge and finds enduring superstars across the continent.

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Searching for spiritual renewal, New Yorker Annie Leibovitz found pieces of America: rural settings of rushing waters, mountain vistas, and meaningful objects of the past.  In her recent book and exhibition, Pilgrimage, currently on display at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American Art, the highly acclaimed portrait photographer shares her journey to restore her own creative energy and cleanse her soul of the darkness brought on by personal struggles.

The artist found her refreshment of spirit in nature’s rawness and the relics of past lives, and in the process, she has made powerful images that capture American portraits, although none appears in typical portrait form.

No faces, no figures – this is a radical departure for a photographer who has taken unique portraits of our cultural icons: the nude portrait of Demi Moore in the late days of pregnancy, Whoopi Goldberg showing only face, hands and feet while submerged in a bathtub filled with milk, a nude John Lennon, hours before his death, curled into a fetal position and clinging to Yoko Ono. Leibovitz has also photographed countless political figures, from Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton to Queen Elizabeth II.  What could have inspired the effort to veer from these highly staged interpretations of the individual, carefully and symbolically posed to accentuate their fame? 

It began as a brief escape from very public financial worries for the city-dwelling photographer and her three young daughters, but eventually, the project took Leibovitz across the United States with her digital camera, capturing whatever interested her. On a rushed weekend trip with her daughters to Niagara Falls, that began with a series of disappointments and distractions, Leibovitz saw the awe in her children’s faces as they stood mesmerized.  As she focused her own attention on the enormous surge of water pounding over the falls, she pulled out her digital camera and started shooting. Thus began the adventure that is the subject of this exhibition and the source of her personal renewal.

From Walden Pond to Yosemite National Park, with many exceptional discoveries between, these images are Leibovitz’s first digital project, and they record, in the case of the natural settings, the grandeur of a moment, a piece of nature that reaches beyond written or spoken words. In her visits to the historically preserved homes of revered figures of the past, she found ways to photograph the essence of the person with mere details of valued possessions, often an everyday and mundane object.

Annie Leibovitz/Pilgrimage
Georgia O’Keefe’s box of pastels

For what Leibovitz called the centerpiece of her project, she visited Georgia O’Keefe’s New Mexico homes in Abiquiu and at Ghost Ranch.  Moved to tears by the solitude, remoteness, and simplicity of the artist’s homes, she photographed O’Keefe’s plain, single bed, neatly covered by a white sheet with a small hole worn through. The sparse and austere adobe interior, opened wide by walls of windows, revealed the rich southwestern landscape that O’Keefe loved and painted throughout her years in New Mexico. 

One of the most moving images of O’Keefe’s “portrait” is the wooden box of handmade pastels that have been preserved as she left them.  She had made the pastels from materials shipped from Paris, but the well-worn box, far removed from Parisian standards, contains all the colors that are the palette of her southwestern landscape.  The images of the bed, the pastel box, the landscape of craggy mountains, the sun-soaked adobe walls, and the perfect skeletal remains of a rattlesnake come together to make a poignant statement about O’Keefe, her life and her style. These pictures identify Georgia O’Keefe as skillfully as the penetrating dark eyes that stare out at us from her dark and beautifully oval face in an Alfred Steiglitz photograph.

Annie Leibovitz/Pilgrimage
Red hill, New Mexico

Drawn to rural Virginia, just outside of Charlottesville, Leibovitz visited Monticello, home of founding father Thomas Jefferson.  Monticello was built on one of the gently rolling mountains that surround the town and that nurtured Jefferson’s thoughts, his writings, his designs and inventions, and his life-long interest in horticultural experimentation.  He developed over 330 vegetable varieties in his 1,000 ft. garden terraces and 170 fruit varieties in his extensive orchards; the estate is still the site of ongoing gardens and a center for historic plants.

Leibovitz photographed Carolina lima beans in a pod, sweet potatoes recently pulled from the ground and still covered in rich Virginia soil, and a view of Jefferson’s vegetable garden in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains: all portraits of his horticulturist-identity and seeds of a new beginning for the photographer as well.

After portraying Thoreau through his identification with Walden Pond, Annie Oakely through her unconventional life, John Muir and Ansel Adams through their fascination with Yosemite, among many others, Leibovitz concluded her renewal journey with Spiral Jetty, an earthwork on the edge of the Great Salt Lake, created by Robert Smithson in 1970.  Using heaps of black rock and dirt, the artist made a 1,500 ft. long coil off the bank and into the reddish edge waters of the lake.  Over time the waters rose, submerging the jetty, but now the jetty has reemerged. The original black rock has turned gray with saline crystals, and the water, no longer the same reddish tinge, is pinkish due to salt dilution.  Smithson’s interest in modern human beings’ relationship to the land and nature is evident in the dual forces of modern technology that it took to build the spiral and the natural forces that inevitably altered his work over the past 40 years.  Leibovitz said she always knew she would end the project with Spiral Jetty, which she described as both an end and a beginning.

Annie Leibovitz
Self-portrait in Plano, Illinois (2011)
Annie Leibovitz came to the Pilgrimage project without a clear direction. In her own words, the project was arbitrary and moved wherever her curiosity took her. She needed to take a break from the stresses of her life, and from the technically exact, precisely lighted, and elaborately choreographed portraits of celebrities that have garnered her international accolades. Instead, she stumbled into this project, led by her young children, experimenting with new digital equipment, and simply following her curiosity. 

But Leibovitz’s 40 years of experience in bringing out the signature attributes of celebrities was not easily shed. What she ended with is a collection of photographs that capture the magnificence of the earth and the richness of individual lives that have lived on it–yes, still celebrity portraits, but without the faces. Her project was a success.  In her own words, “It taught me to see again.”

Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage, exhibited at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., runs through May 20.

Cyndy Clark of Lexington, Kentucky, wrote her art history thesis on Beatrice Mandelman, a painter employed by the WPA who settled in Taos, NM, in the 1940s.

 

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