Most people associate Annie Leibovitz with her staged photos of movie stars like Meryl Streep, rockers like Mick Jagger and entertainment conglomerates like Disney, which recently commissioned the photographer to execute a slick series of "Dream Portraits" (think Taylor Swift dressed up as Rapunzel, Queen Latifah costumed as Ursula, Tina Fey digitally shrunk to the size of Tinker Bell). While the 70 photographs on display for Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage, through September 8, 2013, at the San Jose Museum of Art, are not as obviously star-obsessed as any of those examples, they are still, weirdly, celebrity portraits.
Organized around the conceit that places like Elvis Presley's Graceland, Georgia O'Keefe's Abiquiu, Ansel Adams' darkroom and Pete Seeger's garage are destinations to which Leibovitz has always wanted to make a pilgrimage, the show is mostly a catalog of stuff owned or accumulated by famous people. The only "pure" places in the show are Niagara Falls and Old Faithful, although in their own way, those iconic natural wonders are celebrities, too.
Sigmund Freud's couch, Freud Museum, 20 Maresfield Gardens, London, 2009. c Annie Leibovitz.
As is Leibovitz. In fact, walking through the exhibition, it was impossible not to think about what was going on in Leibovitz's much-publicized life when she was taking these pictures. Back in 2009, when Leibovitz was snapping photos of Sigmund Freud's couch, the photographer was raking in a reported quarter-million-dollars per day shooting fashion for Louis Vuitton. Despite her extraordinarily privileged position, she was $24 million in debt and about to lose the rights to her life's work, which she had put up as collateral. Leibovitz's self-inflicted financial woes (she appears to have been seduced by the remodeling muse) have since been resolved, but in that context, the artist's multiple pilgrimages hither and yon between 2009 and 2011 feel as much like excuses to escape New York as boxes to check on one's bucket list.
And so, what of the choices Leibovitz made, both in terms of the places she visited and the pictures she took once there? Well, not surprisingly, we get a number of photographs about photographers and photography. There are peeks inside Ansel Adams' darkroom in Carmel, as well as a series of Leibovitz's photos of Adams' photos of Yosemite Valley, which is presumably Leibovitz's way of paying homage to a photographer she's always admired, if never emulated. Closer to the artist's heart, I expect, is the Isle of Wight home of Julia Margaret Cameron, a Victorian-era photographer who shot portraits of Charles Darwin and Virginia Woolf's mother, among many others, making her something of a prototype for Leibovitz.
Emily Dickinson's only surviving dress, Amherst Historical Society, Amherst, Massachusetts, 2010. c Annie Leibovitz
As if to complete the circle, Leibovitz also stops by Charles Darwin's place, whose life is represented by a couple of dead birds, at least one of which is from the Natural History Museum at Tring (the exhibition is curiously stingy about explaining what you are looking at). A legend on the museum's wall explains that Mrs. Darwin disliked her husband's practice of preparing pigeons for taxidermy in the family kitchen, which I guess is supposed to give us an insight into the great naturalist's post-Beagle domestic life, but is that all Leibovitz has to share about the father of evolution? Pilgrimage is filled with such randomness.
Better are the photos taken at Virginia Woolf's country place south of London. Leibovitz's portrait of the top of the writer's ink-stained desk is a poignant counterpoint to the rippled surface of the River Douse, where Woolf drowned in 1941. Leibovitz also brings perspective to Annie Oakley's Darke County, Ohio, birthplace, but not through the handsome, if soulless, photo of the sharpshooter's cowboy boots. No, we get a glimpse of what might have helped put the steel in Oakley's spine via Leibovitz's shot of snow blowing across a road near her birthplace. If you can survive winters like this, Leibovitz seems to be saying, the pressures of shooting a one-inch, heart-shaped target from 40 feet must have seemed tame.
Ansel Adams' darkroom, Carmel, California, 2010. c Annie Leibovitz.
In the end, though, the biggest problem with Pilgrimage and its inevitable stops at places like Walden Pond, Spiral Jetty and Gettysburg is that the pretense of the enterprise is a distraction from a number of rather fine photographs. The colors in her picture of the vegetable garden at Monticello, for example, are so rich, the image might be mistaken for the work of a Hudson River painter. Even a potential throwaway, Niagara Falls, is sublime, as she captures the gunmetal-teal of the Niagara River breaking abruptly at a band of aqua before disappearing into white mist. No doubt Leibovitz thinks she has something to say by taking a photograph of some dead leaves that John Muir collected, but pictures like the one of Niagara Falls could make her famous all over again.
Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage runs through September 8, 2013, at the San Jose Museum of Art. For more information, visit sanjosemuseumofart.org.