I’ve never been an Annie Leibovitz fan. While I’ve liked a lot of her work, I’ve always felt that her portraits relied too much on the charisma of the sitter. She’s a fantastic celebrity photographer,* but that was all I saw her as.
*both meanings fully intended.
After seeing Pilgrimage at the San José Museum of Art, I’m quite happy to reevaluate my sense of her. These are photos which are almost best viewed without knowing or thinking about who the photographer is. Instead of the celebrity and the glamour which dominate her photos, we have quietly powerful portraits of people—or the myths about them—via their things and environment.
I’ve seen some Leibovitz photos like this before but they were all personal portraits filling out that side of her photographer’s life. It’s one thing to see photos of her partner’s or parent’s belongings. Those photos, while providing a sense of the person, also provide a sense of Leibovitz’s relationship with that person. In the same way that I only show my things to people I know and trust, her photos show how she’s been trusted.
It’s quite another thing to photograph the possessions of famous figures from history in a way which both capitalize on the myths and add background details.
We know who these people are. More importantly, we know the myths about them. As a result, the photos do have the same sense of “name that subject” that most of Leibovitz’s photos do. There’s a playing card which Annie Oakley has shot through the pip. There’s the TV Elvis shot. Lincoln’s top hat.* There’s Freud’s couch. There’s the River Ouse. There’s Walden Pond. Etc. Etc. Looking at a lot of these photos produces the same feelings of familiarity and recognition that walking through the Smithsonian does. Except that by being photographs, it’s possible to mix objects and locations
*Which he was wearing when he was shot. Come it think of it, there’s a lot of gun culture embedded in our mythologies.
The photos aren’t just of icons though. Each “portrait” consists of multiple photos—some iconic, others filling in the gaps and providing some new details. It’s nice to see the groups of a handful of photos working together to present a myth rather than one photo per person.
While the exhibition consists of Leibovitz visiting her heroes and mythology, much of her mythology is consistent with the general American/western myths. Which means that the parts of this show I like the most are when I see portraits of people who (or whose work) I particularly care for.
Her Ansel Adams group includes a number of photos of Yosemite but is notable for the photos of his darkroom. This appeals to the backstager in me in general as well as the photographer, and photography commenter specifically.
As much as Adams’s photos are familiar and, to a certain degree, an aspiration for all photographers, it’s important to emphasize how much of what makes an Adams an Adams is the post-exposure work. We get too worked up about digital manipulation and the idea of photographic ethics. Showing Adams’s shop and implying that the darkroom is as important as actually taking the photo just makes me happy.
The Georgia O’Keeffe photos are also great. I love New Mexico and it’s easy to see the environment which inspired her. But it’s also nice to see photos of where O’Keeffe lived, items she used for her art, and how they all interacted. The handmade pastels and collected bones. The way the light hits and dramatizes everything both man-made and natural. The uncomplicated way of living. The O’Keeffe photos work together better than any other portrait on display.
I also liked the John Muir photos. But I couldn’t help but think that a lot of their impact had been stolen by an exhibition the Sierra Club put on a few years ago.* John Muir’s legacy is best experienced by going out in nature and enjoying and exploring it on our own.
*I saw Nature’s Beloved Son: Rediscovering John Muir’s Botanical Legacy in San José in 2011. I did not blog about it at the time as I didn’t have a chance to fully get my thoughts around it after viewing. I should probably try and find the book at the library now.
It’s interesting though to see how much work it took to explore and document nature in the past. The amount of effort and scholarship it took to document and share his travels is amazing. Nowadays we just snap a photo and match the plant using a field-guide app. It’s important to see the old field notes and specimen pages to remind us how much we take for granted and what we could have lost had no one before us cared.
Other people may find they have different heroes in common with this show. Some may like Pete Seeger or Elvis, others Emily Dickinson or Louisa May Alcott. In all cases though there are interesting things to see and find here.
What I find doesn’t work as well are the landscape photos which are not tied to specific myths.* I understand how they fit with the general premise of the show. But they don’t hold the same power as the portrait groups and I found myself sort of skipping over them while I viewed the show.
*That the Niagara Falls photo which is used as the cover image for the show is one of the photos which I don’t feel “fits” suggests that maybe I’m the one with the problem.
At their best, I can grant the landscapes a sort of ruin porn power (in a good way) where they reference or evoke some past use or mythological event. The Gettysburg photos in particular work well in this regard. But in general, I just couldn’t make them fit with true portraits.
And the portraits are my biggest takeaway from this exhibition. Leibovitz is capable of taking portraits of people when they’re not even present in the frame. This is quite a stunt and blows away my prior perceptions and critiques of her. I’m not sure I’m a full-on convert yet, but it’s nice to have had my mind changed.