a piece i wrote for readysetdc:
when annie leibovitz took her place behind the podium late sunday morning for her symposium on creativity at the corcoran, i expected a booming voice. and, to be honest, a bit of ego. she’s one of the best photographers in the world – ego is expected. but she wasn’t. she was quiet and thoughtful and funny. she admitted she didn’t know this was going to be a symposium on creativity until three days ago and she laughed at herself. i liked her.
“just when i think i’m dead and there’s nothing left in me, what saves me is my work. my work,” she began as an image of niagara falls projected onto the screen. anyone who is familiar with annie’s story, knows that the past decade has been rough for her. she lost her best friend and lover, susan sontag, in 2004. she’s also faced substantial financial difficulties. but amidst all of this, she manages to not only move forward, but to continue creating.
pilgrimage, her latest exhibition now showing at the smithsonian, chronicles her 2-year road trip through america and europe. the complicated, technical lighting annie is known for in her portraits is missing. these photos are stripped, simple, quiet, and deeply personal. the lace detail of a delicate, white dress. a brown leather couch draped with a heavy blanket. a small, red heart with what seems to be a bullet-hole piercing the center. a pair of tattered, leather gloves. a drawer of scattered, color-coordinated pastels. a shattered television. the curtained view of a concrete wall.
it’s not until we learn the dress once belonged to emily dickinson, that the photo has its full effect. that the couch is THE couch made famous by sigmund freud. the punctured heart is actually annie oakley’s famous heart target and abraham lincoln wore those very gloves the night he was killed over a century ago. the pastels were made by the hands of georgia o’keeffe and the broken television belonged to elvis – and it wasn’t just broken; he shot it. because robert goulet stepped onscreen.
the story behind the view of the concrete wall particularly touched me. she spoke of their usual family trips to niagara falls. how they always reserved the same room, with the same incredible view of the falls. how they would drive through the night, kids fast asleep in the back seat, and when they finally made it to the hotel, they would move the sleeping children to their beds. the next morning, annie would pull the curtains back, and, as if by magic, the children would wake to the falls. this particular trip found annie a single parent. the credit card used to book the room was rejected. they were moved to another room with another view: the concrete wall.
with this photo, and the story behind it, annie allows us to see into a small piece of her world. what it was and what it is now. the story enables us to experience a single, heart-breaking and candid moment, where the lights and celebrity are stripped and she’s just a single mom with three kids and a rejected credit card.
but there is also a feeling of hope and renewal throughout this series. she seems to gain strength from each place she visits, the people who once inhabited them, and the stories she learns. it is through her travels that she begins to heal, “when i walked into georgia o’keeffe’s studio i didn’t expect myself to be moved…but i found myself weeping.”
“i needed to save myself,” she explained to the new york times when describing her motivation for pilgrimage. “i needed to remind myself of what i like to do, what i can do…my book is a meditation on how to live. it’s an old-fashioned idea, but you should always try to do what you love to do.”
a polaroid of annie as she was leaving the symposium. OF COURSE my camera malfunctioned. but you can still sort of tell it’s her. i’ll always remember how nervous i felt, standing in the rain, taking this photo.