BOSTON — The name Annie Leibovitz is synonymous with celebrit y —her own and the countless spectacularly famous people she’s photographed for 40 years. Recently though, hers has been a life devoid of glamour and more about bouncing back from bottom.
Three years ago the photographer was down and out, beset by bankruptcy in finances and low on self-confidence.
“You get that way with your work. You do something for over 40 years and wonder what you’re doing and if you’re having a hard time, emotionally, mentally, and other places it just feels … you feel bad. You’re trying to figure out,” Leibovitz said.
So she began a pilgrimage, which became the title of her new book and the photography show now at the Concord Museum. Her search for place took her to locations attributed to other people; the homes of Virginia Woolf, Elvis Presley and Sigmund Freud, among others.
“I wanted to try this being moved emotionally and what could take you in,” Leibovitz explained. “I’ve always believed this, that if you just go somewhere you’re going to find something. And there are some places that immediately I felt moved. In other places I worked at it a little bit.”
Annie Leibovitz talks about how her pilgrimage originated.
Leibovitz calls the work a notebook. While her claim to fame is her celebrity portraits, here she struggled with stillness.
“The objects I hit a wall with. I didn’t expect to have to think about how to photograph an object, it’s certainly not my kind of picture. But my portraits, I think my successful portraits involve environment. They involve landscape, they involve where you are — [a] sense of place,” Leibovitz said.
What began as a project, a test, evolved into a journey with emotional heft. In Massachusetts she photographed in the Dickinson homes and here at the Concord Museum she captured Emerson’s study and Thoreau’s bed.
“As I was photographing it, David Wood, the curator here, told me he had also died on the bed. They pulled the bed out. I was definitely a wreck after that, that the bed had all this resonance,” she said.
Capturing what Leibovitz calls our “cultural inheritance,” she was most moved by Georgia O’Keeffe’s home.
“Walking to her studio at Albuquerque, I didn’t expect it, I just broke down. It makes me cry just thinking about it. It’s so spare, and she worked hard and the view of the desert and her frugality was definitely a great example,” she said.
Pilgrimage took Leibovitz to landmarks, artist enclaves and to cowgirls.
“It was hard to find things, objects of Annie Oakley. What I really loved was that target which I discovered … the symbolism of the bullet hole through the heart. I mean, God knows you make up your own story.”
Today the pressures on Leibovitz have eased, personally and professionally. She told me that along the way on her pilgrimage, she did find some relief.
“It was about halfway through the book when I realized I loved this work. I love it. And then I realized I had to finish it,” she said as she laughed.
Annie Leibovitz talks about how she, like everyone else, is learning to work with digital cameras.
The exhibition, which includes approximately 70 photographs taken between April 2009 and May 2011—nine of them taken in Concord, Massachusetts—will be on view at the Concord Museum through September 23, 2012.