It was lucky happenstance that prompted Annie Leibovitz to include Georgia O’Keeffe in the exhibition Pilgrimage. The world-famous photographer received a Woman of Distinction award by the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in 2009. Visiting New Mexico to accept it, she was invited by the museum to experience Ghost Ranch and O’Keeffe’s home and studio in Abiquiu. Though she had been to Santa Fe and Taos before, she had never explored those particular sites. “I didn’t expect to be moved when we walked into O’Keeffe’s studio,” says Leibovitz in the exhibition’s companion book of the same name, “but I found myself weeping. It’s hard to describe the sense of solitude and peace in that room.”
That inspired Leibovitz to incorporate the influential painter into her highly personal project. Pilgrimage chronicles an internal dialogue of sorts between herself and iconic figures (such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Marian Anderson, and Virginia Woolf) and locations (including Niagara Falls, Walden Pond, and the Yosemite Valley, to name a few). The exhibition debuted at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in January 2012 and has been traveling to museums nationwide since May. It opens February 15 at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.
Pilgrimage is a departure for Leibovitz, who began her career at Rolling Stone in 1970 and is renowned for her portraiture. The photographic subjects arc places and objects rather than people. Yet, according to the museum’s curator, Carolyn Kastner, it’s a mistake to regard Leibovitz as only “the photographer of famous people.” Her genius is her ability to capture transitional moments with her subjects, in photography that can “seem impromptu,” but is in fact, “well considered.”
Like Georgia O’Keeffe, who helped forge American modernism at a young age, Leibovitz is also a pioneering artist working in a field still chiefly dominated by men. Kastner notes that the two are “really strong women … both of them are really known for that.” Not surprisingly, Leibovitz found a sort of kindred spirit in Georgia O’Keeffe and responded immediately to the artist’s surroundings—especially, says Kastner, to “the kind of discipline and professionalism that is so apparent when you’re in the home.” O’Keeffe organized her life around her art and even went so far as to alter her old adobe to create large windows. Not an easy task, but the artist maintained the structural integrity of the building. “She created access to the visual landscape that inspired her,” Kastner says. “When Annie Leibovitz saw this, she was really moved, because it was about O’Keeffe’s dedication to her art.”
Leibovitz’s connection to O’Keeffe is evident in Pilgrimage in ways both obvious and subtle; in fact, two of her photographs quote O’Keeffe’s work directly. In Red Hill Ghost Ranch, Leibovitz documents the same land that O’Keeffe painted in Purple Hills Ghost Ranch (1934). The other allusion is the photograph The Black Place, which relates to O’Keeffe’s own Black Place III (1945). Despite sharing a subject, these last two images are very different. “What ends up in the book is a close-up of the ground,’’ says Kastner of Leibovitz’s piece, which showcases rocks, which were, as Kastner says, “very important to O’Keeffe,” explaining that she “brought rocks from the Black Place back to her home.”
Leibovitz spent lots of time in the museum’s research center, where she pored over the artists’ tangible property: bones, oddities, and art materials. “I found O’Keeffe’s pastels especially moving,” she says in the book Pilgrimage. “She made them herself. They were the color of the landscape. Reds and browns and yellows and blues. And they were worn. She had used them.”
O’Keeffe’s bed was also of particular interest to Leibovitz, who captures its austerity in a spare and evocative image. According to Kastner, the bed, with its white linen cover, “gives you something of O’Keeffe’s being,” citing “a hole in the fabric, not mended or fixed in any way” that highlights the modesty with which the artist lived. “She was a wealthy woman,” Kastner continues. “She saved and mended and used things up. She paid for expensive furniture and clothing and used it to a nubbin.”
Those values spoke deeply to Leibovitz. “The simplicity of her single bed with the threadbare linens and the horizon line says it for me,” she writes. “You can tell what was important to her. I’ve seen some ways I wish I could live, and on some level Georgia O’Keeffe sets the bar.”
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