The Fussy Eye: Famous Names

A new approach for Annie Leibovitz?

There was a time when Annie Leibovitz filled the pages of Rolling Stone with backstage photos of her rock-star buddies. There was a time when her celebrity spreads (and glossy ads) engorged Vogue and Vanity Fair. There was a time (2001) when her traveling show of oversized female portraits came to SAM. Then there was the more recent time when she made some unwise real-estate decisions, nearly went broke, and badly needed more money. ("I felt like such a failure," she writes.) Thus Pilgrimage (Random House, $50), in which she forgoes her signature bright flash effects, posh studios, assistants, and hair-and-makeup people. This is because her subjects are all dead, meaning that the recovering portrait artist must become a photographer of landscapes, still lifes, and evidentiary traces of past greatness. Initially armed only with a DSLR, it's an entirely new approach for Leibovitz, or so this coffee-table memoir would have you believe. But after starting at Niagara Falls, the "Beauty Book" project she had envisioned with her late partner Susan Sontag begins to veer back toward overfamiliar names. She pays visits to the old homes and haunts of Abraham Lincoln, Sigmund Freud, Georgia O'Keeffe, Virginia Woolf, and other historical figures she admires—or at least those she presumes we admire. If she can't photograph Emily Dickinson live in the flesh, at least she can portray the late poet's pressed flowers, bedroom, and garments—so rich in genius and history and dust. (Did we mention the genius?) Leibovitz supplies a long companion text to her tourist trek, in which she backslides with a visit to Graceland and photographs a TV that Elvis shot. Elvis. He once shot a TV. There's a novel story we've never heard before. We also see Lincoln's stovepipe hat and O'Keefe's animal skulls, though not, it must be said in praise, Freud's cigars. And with 40 years behind the lens, Leibovitz doesn't take bad photographs. They just lack originality and purpose. In truth, Pilgrimage is perfectly consistent with her long career. It merely continues her celebrity focus from a different angle. 

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