In new Leibovitz exhibit, ordinary objects become beautiful photographs + video

eshaw@islandpacket.comOctober 10, 2013 

  • IF YOU GO

    WHAT: Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage

    WHEN: Show runs through Jan 5.

    WHERE: The Columbia Museum of Art, 1515 Main St., Columbia. The museum is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday

    COST: $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and military, $5 for students

    DETAILS: 803-799-2810 or columbiamuseum.org.

If you think a photo of an old pair of gloves wouldn't be interesting, you are mistaken. It's wonderful.

It doesn't hurt that the gloves belonged to Abraham Lincoln.

Or that they were photographed by Annie Leibovitz.

For two years, the legendary portrait photographer traveled around the country taking photographs of objects that interested her. Most are artifacts associated with famous people, but no people appear in the photos.

It was an unusual move for someone who has been the go-to shooter for Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, turning her lens on countless celebrities in carefully staged photo shoots.

"Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage," the latest exhibit at the Columbia Museum of Art, is about something else.

"The show is a lot about redemption and looking and searching and re-finding yourself," Leibovitz said to a group of photographers and reporters on an Oct. 3 tour of the gallery. The traveling exhibition has 78 photographs, mostly objects but some landscapes, that Leibovitz took between 2009 and 2011.

The first photo in the collection was taken at Niagara Falls, where Leibovitz took her children on a family vacation.

"There was a little bit of the feeling of, 'Should I jump?' " she said, half-joking. "I was having a difficult time in my life. Things weren't as good as I'd have liked them to be."

Leibovitz has had financial troubles in recent years and faced lawsuits from two companies that had lent her millions of dollars.She needed to get away.

So she took a sabbatical from the editorial assignments and the magazine shoots, choosing instead to travel where she wanted to travel and photograph what she wanted to photograph.

She started making a list.

Call it an artistic bucket list. It included a dozen or so places. Emily Dickinson's house. Walden Pond. Georgia O'Keeffe's studio.

Many of the shots are close-ups, "which I don't normally do," Leibovitz said, "but if I pulled far away, I wouldn't have seen the detail I wanted to see."

The macro images are crisp but not harsh. Every crack in the wood base of the compass Lewis and Clark used on their expeditions West is visible, as is the green fuzz on a split pea pod from Thomas Jefferson's garden in Monticello, and the dull glow from the overhead lamp in Ansel Adams' darkroom.

"I was enamored with all these lives, and I went looking to find them, how they lived and how they died," Leibovitz said, adding that her pilgrimage was cathartic, feeding creativity that had somewhat eroded over the years.

"As I did this work, I realized how much I love my work and how much it fulfills me," she said.

Leibovitz's skill with even a basic digital camera elevates the simplest of images in the exhibit.

A dried leaf. A faded dress. You could spend plenty of time staring at the everyday things. They are beautiful in their composition, lighting and bold colors -- a testament to Leibovitz's photography chops. They are interesting in the insight they provide into their owners. What does this broken TV set say about Elvis? ("Elvis never threw anything away.") Charles Darwin would have definitely kept boxes of pigeon bones like this one to study, wouldn't he?

You can imagine Georgia O'Keeffe sitting quietly at her easel in the desert, or Ansel Adams tinkering in his darkroom after a day of hiking in Yosemite -- the people are brought back to life through their possessions.

If they were still alive today, you can bet Leibovitz would take a mean portrait of them, too.


Video: Annie Leibovitz discusses the "Pilgrimage" exhibit

Famed photographer Annie Leibovitz discusses her latest exhibit, "Pilgrimage," which represents a departure from her typical portraiture work. She describes the moments that lead up to the capture of the photo entitled "Niagara Falls."

Follow Erin Shaw on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_ErinShaw.

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