Possessed by celebrity
by Sura Wood
"Sometimes you have to please your own sweet self" could be the tagline for Annie Leibovitz's latest show Pilgrimage, now at the San Jose Museum of Art. Something of a departure from the slick, theatrically staged and whimsically imaginative celebrity portraits she does for her day job on assignment for glossies Vogue and Vanity Fair, this exhibition is the result of a personal quest for the photographer. It's comprised of 70 digital color pictures of iconic landscapes like Niagara Falls, Gettysburg and Yosemite, and the homes and objects that belonged to influential, deceased, mostly American figures who shaped their times, such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Emily Dickinson, Emerson, Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, John Muir, and Freud, whose London house she had used for one of her layouts.
After her partner Susan Sontag died from cancer in 2004, and having emerged battered but still standing from her much-publicized financial woes, Leibovitz decided to embark on a project the couple had originally conceived of together: making a list and visiting places that were meaningful to them. She set out in 2009, and though the itinerary for this make-it-up-as-you-go journey morphed and changed, she has said the work saved her, and helped her regain her equilibrium.
That we can really learn much about a person from their possessions, the places they inhabited, or the edifices erected in their honor is a shaky premise, but the show's main virtue is its key to Leibovitz's discerning eye: how and what she sees when not doing the bidding of her magazine masters, who require the glamorous packaging of the beautiful and famous as commodities for public consumption. It's unlikely we'd care about these pictures or they'd be in a museum if she weren't famous. So how can we separate her fame from the value of this body of work? The answer is: with difficulty.
There are no people to be found here, living or dead; only the things they left behind, and that leaves Leibovitz, who knows a thing or two about composing a striking, well-lit photograph, unmoored. With Virginia Woolf, she photographed the writer's ink-stained desk and the river where she drowned herself by piling her pockets full of rocks; she shot Ansel Adams' red-lit darkroom in Carmel, and a trio of crisp, small-scale images of the same Yosemite vistas he captured seen here at twilight, sunset, and with clouds looming over the peaks. A section on Lincoln includes the tattered top hat he wore and the well-worn gloves found in his pocket the night he was shot, as well as the Presidential memorial on whose steps singer Marian Anderson sang after being denied permission to perform at Constitution Hall, which had a "whites only" policy. Leibovitz laid Anderson's soiled and torn concert gown on the floor, shot it in sections, then assembled them into one image. Dismissing Graceland as too stagey, she traveled to Elvis Presley's home in Tupelo, Mississippi, and photographed a television set whose screen the "King" had shattered with a bullet. Evidently, whenever Robert Goulet appeared, Elvis went for his gun.
Photo: Annie Leibovitz, from Pilgrimage (Random House, 2011)
For the most part, the images throughout the exhibition are oddly devoid of emotional connection. An exception is a group of moving photographs that relate to Georgia O'Keeffe, the mythologized goddess/painter of the desert, who, like Leibovitz, has become a brand. There's a picture of a drawer containing the artist's pastels representing a palette of the Southwest's bleached-out colors, and a set of pelvic bones, but the most stunning image is of an open patio doorway to O'Keeffe's adobe house in Abiquiu that she loved to paint. Leibovitz recalls going "weak in the knees" when she entered O'Keeffe's studio, and one senses that she respects and identifies with her. The experience ushered in the photographer's next slated project, artists in their studios, which may head in a more productive direction, as it will give her people to play off, and personalities to convey.
The rap on Leibovitz is that her work is superficial. Now in her 60s, she's searching for untapped depths within, but if they're there, she hasn't found them yet. As is true of most voyages of self-discovery, however admirable, they're primarily for and about the seeker. So where does that leave people shelling out $50 for the companion book or visiting the show? Bored, I'm afraid. These technically well-crafted images, like those from her flashier, more lucrative oeuvre, don't warrant repeated viewing. You get it the first time.
Like a gorgeous starlet yearning to be taken seriously as an actress, there is an element of pathos in a pursuit of gravitas and authentic feeling that falls short on both counts. But in the words of David Mamet, "Never feel sorry for a man with a plane," or in this case: Don't feel bad for the most famous, highly compensated celebrity celebrity-photographer in history, one with a seven-figure income, a touring exhibition and a book deal. (Through Sept. 8.)