Some things take a little while to process. Like getting to stand in a room with one of the foremost visionaries and influencers on what we see in American culture. A person whose former partner was one of the most important women in modern American literature and cultural critique. A person who probably sees a celebrity walking down the street in Manhattan and doesn’t give the person a second thought, because she is the one who has made that person appear untouchably beautiful to the rest of us.
Yes, when I got to stand in a room with Annie Leibovitz at the Columbia Museum of Art
recently (not to mention talk to her), I was knocked for a bit of a loop, as were many of the more seasoned members of the media who were there with me. Leibovitz chatted with us as if she had all day (she didn’t) and would love to continue the conversation over a beer across the street (wouldn’t we all?), and all of us were completely stupefied.
Leibovitz was in town for the opening of her exhibition, “Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage
,” which is on view through Jan. 5. If you have ever picked up a copy of an important American magazine, you’ve seen the work of this photographer. Her first magazine cover to make the list of the “iconic” was for Rolling Stone in 1970, when she photographed John Lennon and Yoko Ono in a scandalous yet sweetly intimate pose. Later, she would take the last — ever — photograph of Lennon, just hours before he was killed in New York. Leibovitz has taken photos of the queen of England and of every American first lady since Nancy Reagan. She shot Whoopi Goldberg in a bathtub of milk for Vanity Fair just before the comedienne’s career launched into the stratosphere. She shot of the cast of “The Sopranos” posing as a scene from The Last Supper for Vogue. She has taken the photograph of pretty much every famous actor, model and cultural icon of the last 35 years in the most thoughtful and original ways, showing both the beguiling ideals that we look for as consumers and the country’s seemingly limitless obsession with celebrity.
Part of the reason Annie Leibovitz is so good at creating this effect is because she, personally, isn’t interested in celebrity. She’s only interested in being the best photographer she can by stretching her creative limits at all moments possible.
But what happens when a person of such creative and professional integrity hits a rut? Most of us would take some personal time to sort through the mental clutter. For Leibovitz, the clutter-clearing began with a trip to Emily Dickinson’s home in Amherst, Mass., where she snapped a very simple picture of the poet’s only surviving dress, using a small digital camera. A few months later she was visiting Niagara Falls with her three daughters, taking in the family trip the way — unfortunately — many of us do nowadays. She was on her phone, worrying about business affairs back in New York — not really present.
“Then I noticed that my daughters were quiet,” Leibovitz said. “It takes a lot to capture kids’ attention, so I looked.”
The falls, apparently, told Leibovitz what she needed to do. “That’s when I started making lists,” she said. These included the homes of cultural dignitaries such as Virginia Woolf and Charles Darwin. She visited the final home of Sigmund Freud in London. The majority of the subjects on her mission were American. She shot one of opera singer Marian Anderson’s dresses, a television that had been Swiss-cheesed by Elvis Presley’s gun, Ansel Adams’s darkroom, and many other scenes of minutiae that come together to make up the details of our cultural history.
“From the beginning, when I was watching my children stand mesmerized over Niagara Falls, this project was an exercise in renewal,” Leibovitz said. “It taught me to see again.”
The resulting photographs became a deeply personal book and traveling exhibition of 78 photographs. "I always felt that this show was a little bit of a jewel box … a small, beautiful little show,” she told the group who gathered at the CMA for a press conference. Keeping with this approach, Leibovitz and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which organized the tour, were deliberate in choosing the stops on the tour.
"I really wanted the places that the show went to to reflect the delicateness of the work,” she said. “My father was in the military and I traveled all over this country in a car as one of six kids. I love this country. So, the places the show has been — Gettysburg and Concord — later in the year it goes to the Lincoln Library in Springfield, and finally it ends at the New York Historical Society. We'd been looking for a place in the South."
Karen Brosius, the executive director of the Columbia Museum of Art, initially called the director of the Smithsonian to specifically ask for “Pilgrimage” to be sent to South Carolina. The answer, amazingly, was no. However, after some back and forth amongst the organizers, the Smithsonian eventually called Brosius to tell her that they wanted to do it. This is the first and only time “Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage” has been shown in the South, and Leibovitz is thrilled that the show will call Columbia home for the next three months. “It's so visually rich in South Carolina,” she said of what draws her in here. “I'm sort of dying to get out in the car and drive.”
While “Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage” is visiting the Palmetto State, the museum has planned a wide swath of programming. Some highlights include:
* Gallery Tours
every Saturday at 1 p.m.: These guided tours of the exhibition offer insight into Leibovitz’s artistic background and work. Free with membership or admission.
* Arts & Draughts,
Friday, Nov. 1, 7-11 p.m.: Enjoy beer tasting from the Whig, musical performances by Meagan Jean and the KFB, and the Winter Sounds. Guests can participate in D.I.Y. art projects, interactive art, scavenger hunts, and unique perspective tours through the CMA collection, including “Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage.” $8 admission ($5 for museum members and free for students with valid ID).
* Gladys’ Gang: My Favorite Things;
Wednesday, Nov. 6, 10-11 a.m. (ages 2-5) Little ones and their adult tag-a-longs can explore Leibovitz’s favorite things. Includes story time and a creative studio activity. This program is free. (I’m actually considering pulling my 2-year-old son out of preschool for this!)
* Film: “Life Through A Lens”;
Saturday, Nov. 9, Noon: Directed by Leibovitz’s sister, Barbara, this film traces the arc of the photographer’s life, her aspirations to artistry and the path of her career. This personal look into Leibovitz’s life offers a glimpse into the connections that keep her going. Free with membership or admission.
* Harvest Dinner;
Sunday, Nov. 10, 6-9 p.m.: The CMA, the Southern Greenie, City Roots Farm, restauranteur/chef Kristian Niemi, and Chef Travis Rayle present a farm to table dinner inspired by “Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage.” Cocktails and wine pairings will be included with the four-course meal. The Farm to Table mission is to bring the community together to enjoy the workings of local chefs who are experts in bringing the freshest ingredients together in creative and unique ways. Click here
There are many other programs to enjoy at the Columbia Museum of Art while “Pilgrimage” is on view. For more information, please visit www.columbiamuseum.org