Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage

Photo of Sigmund Freud's couch by Annie Leibovitz
Sigmund Freud's couch in his study at 20 Maresfield Gardens in London (source: NY Times)

Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage charts a new course for one of America’s best-known living photographers. Different from her staged and carefully lit portraits made on assignment for magazines like Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, Pilgrimage took Leibovitz to places that she could explore without an agenda. She wasn’t on assignment this time and she chose the subjects simply because she was moved by them.

The photography exhibition is presented in conjunction with a new book – Pilgrimage by Annie Leibovitz, with an introduction by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Here are some notes from the book:

She chose the subjects simply because they meant something to her. The first place was Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts, which Leibovitz visited with a small digital camera. A few months later, she went with her three young children to Niagara Falls. “That’s when I started making lists,” she says. She added the houses of Virginia Woolf and Charles Darwin in the English countryside and Sigmund Freud’s final home, in London, but most of the places on the lists were American. The work became more ambitious as Leibovitz discovered that she wanted to photograph objects as well as rooms and landscapes. She began to use more sophisticated cameras and a tripod and to travel with an assistant, but the project remained personal.


Leibovitz went to Concord to photograph the site of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond. Once she got there, she was drawn into the wider world of the Concord writers. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s home and Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott and her family lived and worked, became subjects. The Massachusetts studio of the Beaux Arts sculptor Daniel Chester French, who made the seated statue in the Lincoln Memorial, became the touchstone for trips to Gettysburg and to the archives where the glass negatives of Lincoln’s portraits have been saved. Lincoln’s portraitists—principally Alexander Gardner and the photographers in Mathew Brady’s studio—were also the men whose work at the Gettysburg battlefield established the foundation for war photography. At almost exactly the same time, in a remote, primitive studio on the Isle of Wight, Julia Margaret Cameron was developing her own ultimately influential style of portraiture. Leibovitz made two trips to the Isle of Wight and, in an homage to the other photographer on her list, Ansel Adams, she explored the trails above the Yosemite Valley, where Adams worked for fifty years.

“From the beginning, when I was watching my children stand mesmerized over Niagara Falls, it was an exercise in renewal,” she says. “It taught me to see again.”

Virginia Wolf's Bedroom, Annie Leibovitz
Virginia Woolf’s bedroom in her country home, which is a few miles from Charleston, England (source: NY Times)

Dominique Browning interviewed Annie Leibovitz, here is an exerpt from A Pilgrim’s Progress in the New York Times:

Gazing at the traces left behind by her favorite artists, traces of their lives, their creature habits, Ms. Leibovitz finds something to nurture all of us — something about integrity, staying true to a vision. She forges a connection to the past that informs the way she is moving forward. “I would encourage everyone to make their own list,” she says. “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.”

Photographs from Pilgrimage will be exhibited at New York’s Pace Gallery, 545 West 22nd Street, from December 1 to 3, and will then be at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, from January 20 to May 20, 2012. Following its presentation in Washington, D.C., Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage will tour nationally.

Martin Luther King and Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorials

Tidal Basin in Washington, DC
The Tidal Basin, Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC.

I was born (in the USA…) and raised in the Washington, DC area and I love to return to visit. On this trip east we have one day in DC and decide to walk along the Tidal Basin, through the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, to the new Martin Luther King Memorial.

The Tidal Basin is a partially human-made reservoir between the Potomac River and the Washington Channel in Washington, D.C. It is part of West Potomac Park and is a focal point of the National Cherry Blossom Festival held each spring. We are here in summer but spring is a beautiful season especially if you can time it with the cherry blossoms.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt will always be intimately connected to the National Park Service. During a speech in 1936, President Roosevelt noted the special quality of national parks by stating that “there is nothing so American.” He captured the essential truth of the agency by declaring, “the fundamental idea behind the parks…is that the country belongs to the people, that it is in process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us.” Years ago I read the two volume biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, a woman whose values and birth date I share – Eleanor Roosevelt, Vol. 1: 1884-1933 and Eleanor Roosevelt : Volume 2 , The Defining Years, 1933-1938 – both by Blanche Wiesen Cook. I remember being absorbed by both, the first volume is more about her personal life whereas the second volume is more historical, covering the social justice movements in this country at that time and Eleanor Roosevelt’s anti-racism work. Doris Kearns Goodwin has received high praise for her book, No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II. Might be time to revisit the Roosevelts.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt with his dog, Fala, at the FDR Memorial in Washington, DC
Franklin Delano Roosevelt with his Scottish Terrier, Fala, at the FDR Memorial

“They (who) seek to establish systems of government based on the regimentation of all human beings by a handful of individual rulers… call this a new order. It is not new and it is not order”.

The FDR Memorial spans 7.5 acres and depicts the 12 pivotal years of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency through a series of four outdoor gallery rooms. The rooms feature ten bronze sculptures depicting President Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt and events from the Great Depression and World War II. The park-like setting includes waterfalls and quiet pools amidst a wandering wall of red Dakota granite, into which Roosevelt’s inspiring words are carved. It is the first memorial in Washington, DC purposely designed to be totally wheelchair accessible and is open daily except Christmas.

FDR Memorial in Washington, DC
FDR Memorial in Washington, DC

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little”.

After the park-like setting of the FDR Memorial, the Martin Luther King Memorial feels bold and stark. The sculpture, called “Stone of Hope,” stands looking onto the Tidal Basin, across from the Thomas Jefferson Memorial and next to the FDR Memorial. King’s head, his upper body and the tops of his legs emerge from stone. Lei Yixin, a granite sculptor from China, designed it so that King is part of the stone. The sculpture’s name refers to a line in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. “With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope,” King said. His statue is designed to look as if he were once a part of the “Mountain of Despair” but is now the “Stone of Hope.”

MLK Memorial in Washington, DC
MLK Memorial in Washington, DC

There is controversy about the MLK Memorial. Our friends in DC tell us that some are upset about the sculptor chosen, others think the likeness to King is not good, and we hear that the quote on the sculpture is incorrect or taken out of context**… As I take in the memorial and find my critical mind start to work, I hear three older African American women talking among themselves. The first woman says she is looking forward to a few years from now when the landscaping has grown in. Her friend agrees and says she thinks it will be beautiful in the autumn with all the falling leaves on the ground… and the third woman says they must return in the winter when it snows, how beautiful it will be then. They have the vision. Martin Luther King has arrived on the mall.

** Update on 2/10/2012: Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Inscription To Be Changed To Full Quotation

“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

Full Quotation from the “Drum Major Instinct,” a speech King delivered two months before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn.

MLK Quote Wall at the MLK Monument in Washington, DC
One of MLK's inspirational quotes on the granite wall.
MLK Monument in Washington, DC
His statue is designed to look as if he were once a part of the "Mountain of Despair" but is now the "Stone of Hope."

After our visit I read in the Washington Post that some 10,000 spectators arrived on the National Mall for the dedication of this memorial. Among the speakers were a who’s who of civil rights leaders as well as President Obama. This $120 million monument with a 30-foot stone sculpture that depicts Dr. King’s greatness and a curved granite wall inscribed with 14 inspirational quotes from his speeches was officially unveiled on the National Mall to commemorate the work done by Dr. King and many other civil rights activists.

Quote from the MLK Monument in Washington, DC
Another quote from the MLK Monument in Washington, DC
MLK Monument Quote Wall in Washington, DC
View of the MLK sculpture with the curved granite quote wall.

Several years ago around Martin Luther King’s birthday, The Huffington Post asked its readers for their favorite MLK books. The top three were:

Harry Belafonte supported the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and was one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s confidants. His new book, My Song: A Memoir, talks about about his political and humanitarian activism. The sections on the rise of the civil rights movement are described as the most moving in the book: his close friendship with Martin Luther King, Jr.; his role as a conduit between Dr. King and the Kennedys; his up-close involvement with the demonstrations and awareness of the hatred and potential violence around him; his devastation at Dr. King’s death and his continuing fight for what he believes is right. Belafonte is a great artist and another great man.

In 2015 the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture, which is being built near the Washington Monument, will open and will be the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, art, history and culture.

It is now mid-afternoon, we are thirsty and hungry, so we drive over to Georgetown.

Georgetown is a neighborhood located in the Northwest quadrant of Washington, D.C., along the Potomac River waterfront. The primary commercial corridors of Georgetown are M Street and Wisconsin Avenue, which contain high-end shops, bars, and restaurants. Georgetown is home to the main campus of Georgetown University, and numerous landmarks, such as the Old Stone House, the oldest unchanged building in Washington. The embassies of France, Mongolia, Sweden, Thailand, and Ukraine are also located in Georgetown.

Baked and Wired in Georgetown area of Washington, DC
Local hangout, Baked & Wired, in the Georgetown area of Washington, DC

After determining that the waterfront eating options are not appealing, we ask the woman in Starbucks where she would suggest we dine. She recommends J. Pauls up on M St., so off we go. As we walk up Thomas Jefferson St. we come upon the irresistible Baked & Wired. High quality, handmade baked goods made in small batches. Today they have two gluten-free choices – Nutella brownies and peanut butter cookies. I settle on the brownie which is moist, with a divinely rich hazelnut-chocolate flavor. Our niece, Gabrielle, would love these! The connected coffee shop (Wired) is equally small and smart. For those in the know, their coffee comes from Stumptown Coffee Roasters and Intelligentsia Coffee.

J. Paul’s has the windows and doors open and the ceiling fans blowing, for it is a gorgeous summer day, warm but not too humid. An American Saloon that is known for fresh oysters, it is a fun, casual place to dine and watch the action on M Street. Jay orders one of the specials – Salade Nicoise with fresh grilled tuna, and I chose the J. Paul’s Burger without a bun and instead of fries substitute their delicious Peppered Green Beans. The waiter is very helpful and knowledgeable about how to create a gluten-free meal.

During lunch Jay totally surprises me by suggesting that we walk up to the Apple Store on Wisconsin Ave. and purchase a MacBook Air… for me! Certainly sharing a laptop while traveling is challenging for two bloggers… but this is a total surprise. An early birthday present. I am ecstatic. Brownie, burgers, new computer – all I need are balloons.