The Writing Life: Wandering Off the Beaten Path with Annie Leibovitz

by Sherri Burr


SherriBurrFor creative types, there is often a tension between concentrating energy to become known for a particular type of work, and wandering off that path to create something new and different. This tension confronted Annie Leibovitz, who is famous for her unique portrait photography such as that of a naked Demi Moore sporting a sizable baby bump, a naked Whoopi Goldberg immersed in a bathtub of milk, and a naked John Lennon with his arms wrapped around his wife Yoko Ono, taken just hours before he was assassinated. Leibovitz owed Random House a fourth work under her four-book contract when she came up with the idea to photograph objects of dead creative types rather than the people themselves. The results were on display at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe in 2013, and can be found in the book Pilgrimage.

On a press walk through the O’Keeffe Museum in February 2013, Leibovitz discussed what drew her to photograph particular objects, such as Georgia O’Keeffe’s bed, her pastels in a drawer, or the door in the adobe wall of her Abiquiu, New Mexico home. Leibovitz considers O’Keeffe to be a great American artist. “We think we know who she is and we don’t,” she said. When she saw the pastels in the drawer, Leibovitz thought, “It’s all the colors in her landscapes.”

Leibovitz also photographed the bed of psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, the desk of author Virginia Woolf, the nightdress of poet Emily Dickinson, and the television of Elvis Presley. This TV is notable because it has a hole in it. Leibovitz explained that during her second trip to Graceland, she was given a tour of the basement containing items Elvis never threw away. The Graceland staff informed her that every time Robert Goulet came on the air, Elvis would pick up a gun and shoot the television. Because Leibovitz photographed this object, we learned something novel about one of the most examined musicians of our times. About Graceland, she said, “The second time I went I felt it was just a house, when you ignore the red carpets and the velvet ropes.”

There was another reason to explore another trail. “Forty years in the magazine world wears you down,” Leibovitz said. “Pilgrimage presented an opportunity to do something different.”

At Niagara Falls, Leibovitz observed her young children staring at a horizon, as if they were mesmerized. She walked to the location, stood behind them, and took the picture. “As a photographer, a lot of times I have to work to get the picture. This time my children saw the picture first.”

“Walden Pond was about an idea, not a place,” Leibovitz informed us as we stood by her picture of Henry David Thoreau’s bed. “He walked to town every day. It’s about being out in nature.” Thoreau first published Walden; or Life in the Woods in 1854 to explore experiences gained from the two years, two months, and two days he spent living on the shores of Walden Pond. Of her depiction of Thoreau’s bed, Leibovitz says, “It’s not a photograph, it’s a document.”

She paid homage to Ansel Adams by traveling to Yosemite to recreate one of his famous photographs. “To get the picture,” she said, “I had to push back about forty people.” Additionally, she visited Adams’ darkroom that had been turned into a wine cellar. She removed all the wine bottles before capturing the darkroom as it once existed.

The exhibition featured framed photographs shot using digital equipment. “I think digital is closer to how we see color,” she said. “We all see color differently. You’re still doing the work that Ansel did in the darkroom when you’re sitting in front of a computer.” She adds, “One of the reasons I’m interested in landscapes is because they present true color. What’s interesting about digital is that it has more detail.”

Leibovitz’s exhibition (and book), also contained photographs of the hat and gloves Lincoln wore the night he was assassinated. Being in the presence of these objects was “very powerful,” she said.

After departing the O’Keeffe Museum, the exhibition made two more stops before concluding its tour at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library in Springfield, Illinois in 2014.

“When you do something new, you don’t know how it’s going to be. I wanted to know if I could find my own way. You have to feed your heart and your soul,” said Leibovitz.

The exhibit was, and Pilgrimage still is, an inspiration to all of us who feel it’s time to innovate.


A Short and Happy Guide to Financial Well BeingSherri Burr is the Regents’ Professor of Law at the University of New Mexico School of Law where she teaches Entertainment Law, Intellectual Property Law, and Art Law. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Princeton University, and the Yale Law School, she has authored or co-authored 20 books, including A Short and Happy Guide to Financial Well-Being (West Academic, 2014). Sherri is also a long-time member of SouthWest Writers and a regular contributor to the organization’s newsletter SouthWest Sage.


This article was originally published in the May 2013 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.


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