Leibovitz has been documenting American popular culture since the early 1970s, when her work first appeared in Rolling Stone. For nearly three decades, she anchored her photographs in the pedigreed pages of Vanity Fair and Vogue. Hers was a career built upon an uncanny ability to unmask her subjects and, to be sure, she has benefitted from our insatiable worship of celebrities.
Her most famous shot, of course, remains the 1980 Rolling Stone cover featuring a naked John Lennon entangled with Yoko Ono. He was shot and killed several hours later.
Her work made her as rich and famous as many of her subjects. But in 2009, facing a mountain of debt caused in part by Manhattan home renovations that became costly and litigious, Leibovitz borrowed $15.5 million against her photo rights and real estate. She later worked out a deal to buy back control of her images and began working with a private equity firm to sort out her financial affairs.
Two years later, she has emerged from the mess mostly whole and newly refocused on her art, mounting an installation at the Smithsonian based on her own field trips through history. Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage, now a traveling show, differs from other projects in that she takes photos of landscapes, objects and faceless people.
At the Norton, Leibovitz breezes through other photos that lines the walls, in no particular order: the Rev. Al Sharpton, before he lost weight and went natural, seated under a hair dryer getting his hair primped at the PrimaDonna Beauty Care Center in Brooklyn; Sean Combs, in a fur-collared coat, baby boy in one hand, other hand in pocket, older son smiling impishly in the car; photos of a nondescript woman who transforms into a dazzling Vegas showgirl.
She stops, momentarily, to talk about her process, near photos of DiCaprio and Cruise.
I never make anyone do anything they dont want to do. It came from people asking for directions, she says. There is definitely a balance between letting things unfold and having to direct. I am a reluctant director.
At one point, she is standing at the photo that seemed to say the least, so hushed, so reserved it almost receded into the grayness.
I didnt think anyone else liked it but me, she says plainly, gesturing towards a spare portrait of Agnes Martin, an American abstract painter and a personal favorite of Leibovitz.
At they chatted in Martins Taos home, the artist told Leibovitz that the routine of sitting on her bed was part of her path to art.
I sit here and wait to be inspired, Martin said, the simplicity of the explanation serving as Leibovitzs own inspiration of how to best capture the moment. So, the picture is precisely that, Martin sitting upright on the edge of her bed, looking directly toward the cameras lens.
I guess its a very personal picture for me, because I think we all hope for that, she explained. Were all waiting to be inspired.