To call Annie Leibovitz‘s portrait work iconic is almost redundant. Aside from the stature of her subjects– they tend to be among the most famous and celebrated icons on the planet– her best work is effecting and poignant to the point that it’s become inescapable. So when Annie announced last year that her next book would feature no formal portraits, it came as a shock to more than a few. A period of personal turmoil and financial crisis found Leibovitz in need of a departure– literally, stylistically, perhaps even spiritually. A chance encounter on a trip with her daughters to Niagara Falls and a few shots snapped at the home of Emily Dickinson would soon inspire an open-ended photographic journey spanning the country, as well as the next few years.
Pilgrimage gave Leibovitz the chance to funnel her inspirations, and her reverence for American mythology into a truly distinctive collection. There are breathtaking shots of the American sublime, from the edge of Niagara Falls to Yosemite, but probably most striking are the images from inside the homes and lives of Leibovitz’ heroes. Inspired by a list she once made with Susan Sontag, Leibovitz set out to photograph objects and places that held special significance in those lives: the blood-stained gloves Lincoln wore the night he was assassinated, a box of pastels used by Georgia O’Keeffe, or the couch in Sigmund Freud’s office.
Though not a single image features a person, it’s hard not to feel that some of these homages constitute portraits all the same. These tiny fragments from the lives of people so ingrained in the American psyche seem to emanate something profound, about where we’ve come from collectively, and where Leibovitz comes from as an individual. Pilgrimage is available in hardcover now, and the works from the book will be on display at the Smithsonian in D.C. until May 20th.