Pilgrim’s Progress

Annie Leibovitz channels Georgia O’Keeffe

Note:  Annie Leibovitz will discuss the inspiration for and imagery of Pilgrimage. 6–7:30 p.m. Feb. 12, 2013. Tickets $35/$50/$75. Lensic Performing Arts Center. (505) 988-7050; lensic.org

Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage begins Feb. 15 and continues through May 5, 213 at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. (505) 946-1000; okeeffemuseum.org

Think of what the Rolling Stones, Demi Moore, and Arnold Schwarzenegger might have in common, and chances are you’re subconsciously flashing on how they appear in Annie Leibovitz photographs. Her glitzy, often edgy portraits of musicians, actors, athletes, and other celebrities have helped to define cultural icons for the past 40 years. Her most famous photographs, devised for popular consumption in glossy magazines, are baroque in their theatricality.

On the other hand, Georgia O’Keeffe’s signature paintings of abstracted landscapes and still-life subjects speak to a much quieter, isolated, though lush interaction with the environment and her chosen medium. Her paintings are born from a more private personal expression firmly rooted in the tenets of 20th-century American Modernism.

Although each is arguably the best-known American woman artist in her respective genre, their work couldn’t be more disparate. So it’s at first surprising that Georgia O’Keeffe would be a key muse for Annie Leibovitz’s latest body of work, titled Pilgrimage.

The Pilgrimage exhibition, which will be on view at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum beginning February 15, and will be accompanied by an artist’s talk at the Lensic on February 12, represents a radical departure for Leibovitz. The exhibition and corresponding book seek to capture her personal responses to a predominately American cultural legacy, which she explored by gaining access to the historical sites, homes, and studios of (mostly) long-gone illustrious figures from both high and popular culture—Louisa May Alcott and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Annie Oakley and Elvis Presley—who have inspired her.

Georgia O’Keeffe is in this cohort. In 2009, when Leibovitz was in New Mexico to receive a Woman of Distinction award from the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, she visited the painter’s home and studio in Abiquiú. Carolyn Kastner, Curator of  the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, says, “[Leibovitz] had already begun the Pilgrimage project at that time and asked to photograph O’Keeffe’s home, which she did. In 2010 she returned to New Mexico several times to photograph O’Keeffe’s home at Abiquiú, the landscape at Ghost Ranch, and . . . the ‘Black Place,’ where she painted during the 1930s and 1940s.” Leibovitz also gained access to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center, where O’Keeffe’s art materials and the bones she collected on her walks through the desert are stored. The photographs Leibovitz made on each of these trips include landscapes as well as detailed close-ups of O’Keeffe’s objects.

The Pilgrimage project arose at a time of personal and professional crises for Leibovitz, following the deaths of her partner, writer Susan Sontag, and both of Leibovitz’s parents. On top of that, she was embroiled in a grueling attempt to emerge from financial ruin. Bankrupt in every sense of the word, Leibovitz tried to find solace by focusing on her three young daughters, but found that she had little to give. So she did what artists do: She began to immerse herself in her work—not her assignment jobs, but an intensely personal journey of discovery. As she told Dominique Browning in an October 2011 New York Times piece, “I needed to save myself. I needed to remind myself of what I like to do, what I can do.”

The results are, like O’Keeffe’s paintings, sometimes quiet and understated, but they often consider detail to be monumentally significant: a close-up of the alabaster buttons and lace trim on Emily Dickinson’s only surviving dress; Lincoln’s frenzied, handwritten first draft of the Gettysburg Address; O’Keeffe’s torn and threadbare bedspread. There is an immediate intimacy to the photographs that belies Leibovitz’s reputation for that which is carefully staged and out of reach of us mere mortals. In one image, pastel crayons that O’Keeffe made from scratch—as Leibovitz put it in a 2011 essay she wrote for the Guardian, “the colors of New Mexico”—sit in a compartmentalized wooden box, worn and smeared by O’Keeffe’s fingers. Here, in contrast to Leibovitz’s slick magazine work, there is a poignant tactility—the imprints of O’Keeffe’s hands still register her presence.

“If you had to find a heart in the book, it would probably be the Georgia O’Keeffe visits,” said Leibovitz in the Guardian. “I think I was always sidestepping O’Keeffe. She is such a big, looming figure as an artist and subject, but never really a person I admired or emulated.” However, Leibovitz began to weep when she entered O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiú. The artist who had always eluded her was suddenly immensely present.

“Something just hit me about the way she lived. Her frugality—all of her linens were frayed—is a reminder that we don’t need much. She had a simple life: She worked every day, grew a vegetable garden and ate well, walking on this land that she was so drawn to.”

O’Keeffe had a habit of finding fragments of landscape and painting them as if they were gigantic, living and breathing organisms. For example, the relatively low hills of the “Black Place” appear monumental in O’Keeffe’s paintings. In a similar way, Leibovitz photographed a blood-red hill about a dozen feet high behind O’Keeffe’s home, shooting the landform from a low perspective and without a sense of scale. The striated erosion channels look as if they could be looming mountain ridges and valleys. For another shot, Leibovitz trained her camera straight down on a square patch of cracked dirt littered with pebbles—a view so desolate that it echoes photographs taken on the moon. But a closer look reveals tiny, startling bits of vivid color, and it becomes apparent that there is an entire living universe here, and that the view is not only Leibovitz’s, but O’Keeffe’s as well. As Leibovitz wrote in the Guardian, “I remember seeing pictures of her out. She was always bent over, but I didn’t know what she was doing. Of course, as soon as I got there and saw all of these rocks around her house, I realized. She brought buckets of them back home.”

The Pilgrimage photographs, although devoid of people, still represent a kind of portraiture for Leibovitz. Coming into contact with and, in turn, photographing the personal objects and environments so closely associated with the people who owned or inhabited them was profoundly moving—and regenerative—for Leibovitz, who revived the decaying artifacts along with herself during this quest.

Leibovitz never photographed the much-photographed O’Keeffe, and it’s tempting to speculate what such an image might have looked like. In its stead, Leibovitz offers an alternative, collective portrait of O’Keeffe that captures a glimpse of what remains very much alive: the places and things O’Keeffe cared about most.

Laura M. André, Ph.D., is a writer and fine-arts consultant.