Annie Leibovitz, who made her name shooting rock stars and movie stars, is a star herself. She was greeted by a mob scene at the opening reception for her exhibition Pilgrimage at the Columbia Museum of Art. But don't drive to Columbia looking for Whoopi Goldberg in a tub of milk, the naked and pregnant Demi Moore, a haggard Keith Richards on a hotel bed beside a Louis Vuitton guitar case, or any of the other glossy star images she's taken for Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Vogue, and others.
"There are no John Lennon photos in this show," she said during her whirlwind one-day trip to Columbia for the exhibition, which is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
In fact, there isn't a single human being in Pilgrimage and if her name wasn't on the exhibition, most people wouldn't know this was her work. These are images of places and things associated with people Leibovitz admires or at least wants to understand better — Walden Pond and Henry David Thoreau, Georgia O'Keefe and New Mexico, the Hyde Park cottage of Eleanor Roosevelt, Ansel Adams and Yosemite.
"I had a list, but it could have been bigger and it kept changing," she said. "It was kind of a crazy list."
In contrast to her elaborately staged magazine photos, these were shot in less than ideal conditions with natural light and fairly standard cameras. Hers was a circuitous journey both physically and visually, and the images reflect that.
The photographer herself may be a kind of rock star, but at the museum she was personable, off-the-cuff, and humble about her work. "I tried to shoot Walden Pond, but just gave up," she said. Instead she took a photo of the cane latticework of Thoreau's bed. "It's not really even a photograph — it's an object," she said. "I'm not even sure if it's successful."
There are many objects in Pilgrimage — Abraham Lincoln's hat, Charles Darwin's bird collection, Georgia O'Keefe's animal bones, leaves and flowers collected by John Muir, and Emily Dickinson on opposite sides of the continent.
And there is the presence, if not the person, of one star. She traveled to Elvis Presley's home, Graceland. "Like Walden Pond it's so obvious, but I didn't really understand it and still don't," she said. She took a picture of a little television that Elvis had put a bullet through.
While the book that accompanies Pilgrimage tells the story of the people and places and how she shot them, the exhibition is bare bones with the simplest text panels. "She really wanted people to bring their own sense of what these things and places mean rather than having her perception put on everything," says Victoria Cooke, curator at the museum.
If there's no overriding narrative, smaller ones reveal the organic nature of the project.
A trip to Gettysburg led her to Lincoln. Lincoln led her to Daniel Chester French, creator of the Lincoln statue at the Lincoln Memorial. The memorial took her to African-American singer Marian Anderson, who in 1939 performed at the memorial after she was turned away from the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall, which wouldn't permit integrated audiences. And Anderson led her to Eleanor Roosevelt, who made it possible for Anderson to perform at the memorial. The museum has linked these images through the display, but like the photographer's journey, the rest is less tidy.
The "pilgrimage" came at a time when Leibovitz needed grounding in things that were important, she said. Her long-time partner, writer Susan Sontag, had died in 2004 and in 2009 Leibovitz had major financial problems. "I was having a difficult time in my life," she said. "This wasn't a project I was even sure I wanted to do. But I've been doing assignments for 40-odd years. I needed renewal and to do something for myself."
Viewers may be surprised by the photographs; the people who interacted with Leibovitz during her day in Columbia were surprised by her. The museum staff, media, and public were warned that she was touchy and shouldn't be bothered with questions or requests to sign magazines and books, yet it turned out she wanted to talk to everyone.
A trio of women leaving the opening reception said she'd spoken to them for several minutes. One visitor produced a copy of Rolling Stone with Leibovitz' iconic photo of a nude John Lennon wrapped around Yoko Ono. Leibovitz not only signed it, she also showed him a message hidden in the magazine's spine. At the end of a very long day, the worker bees at the museum gushed about her warmth.
Photography students from the University of South Carolina have a small exhibition at the museum inspired by their own "pilgrimages" and they were to meet Leibovitz briefly. She left a VIP tour to talk to them.
"I told the students not to expect too much," said their professor Kathleen Robbins, who exhibits at the Rebekah Jacob Gallery. "But as soon as they were introduced to her she left what she was doing, looked at all their work and spent a generous amount of time talking to each student."