The New York Photo Review Inc.
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Elvis Presley, of course, is a proper subject for the magazine and an accomplished poser, but even there it may have missed out. A profile might have included his 1957 Harley-Davidson Hydra Glide, but would it show a TV set with an alarming bullet hole from one of his guns—or a family burial ground, its overwrought tombs bathed in an electric blue light?
Annie Leibovitz knows Rolling Stone inside and out, but it may again be missing out. One knows her for the glibly stylish photographs that have defined its image, along with that of countless musicians. Yet she photographed as well that one surviving dress, that motorcycle, that shattered glass of a picture tube, and the graveyard in Presley's Meditation Garden, just beyond his swimming pool. All were part of her search for the defining figures of photography, the modern era, and America. Now the New-York Historical Society exhibits her "Pilgrimage," through February 22—really more than two years of pilgrimages starting in April 2009, from the American West to Freud's London. The more than eighty digital photos display a cunning beauty and an extraordinary devotion, but have they recovered her for art photography?
Not that they have to try, for this is a historical society, and Leibovitz approaches figures from science and history as one of their own. She photographed the couch that led Sigmund Freud to the interpretation of dreams, but also his obsessively organized library, with the several volumes of Havelock Ellis's Physiology of Sex. Charles Darwin might have preserved the bones and bodies of pigeons just the other day, and Thomas Jefferson might still be scrutinizing the varieties of beans for his garden. A compass from the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific in 1804 might still be showing the way.
Writers, artists, and musicians, too, appear almost as naturalists. Dickinson presses leaves to paper exactly like John Muir, Pete Seeger leaves behind not his banjo but his vegetable garden and toolshed, and Marion Anderson's concert gown stretches out like the wings of an enormous bird.
Still, this really is art—and not just because anything can be art, so long as the artist says so. And its greatest resource is the close-up, like that of the beans, the compass, the buttons on Dickinson's dress, or Freud's and Ralph Waldo Emerson's bookshelves. It allows Leibovitz to evoke the presence of the dead and, now and then, to surprise. She also has a gift for color, which brings out the texture of Eleanor Roosevelt's Indian bedspread, Annie Oakley's riding boots, and autumn leaves outside Virginia Woolf's country house. She relies on it to pay tribute to her own influences without the burden of competing with them. They run almost exclusively to landscape, including Georgia O'Keeffe and, in photography, Ansel Adams and Julia Margaret Cameron.
Here, too, naturalism blends into artistry. Cameron notably staged her portraits as Victorian theater, like the drama that Presley at Graceland cultivated every day. Studies by Daniel Chester French for the Lincoln Memorial sit alongside studies after classical sculpture, grouped with Abraham Lincoln's gloves and Matthew Brady photographs, but as repeated negatives. Yosemite and Mount Shasta for Carleton Watkins hang in Emerson's dining room. Andy Grundberg, the curator and one of the best writers on photography anywhere, milks the overlay by interspersing another kind of pilgrimage entirely. There Leibovitz takes on the quasi-official American landscape, including Old Faithful (kaboom!), massive boulders at Gettysburg, and Niagara Falls buried in mist.
They show how much she aspires to art photography—and how much she still surrenders to beautification and convention. For her, Dickinson's living room is ever so warm and cozy, not self-imposed isolation, and so is serious art. For her, too, Jefferson's garden was not the work of an Enlightenment systematizer, the architecture of Monticello a central part of the system, but the source of a single pod sliced open to the light. A pilgrimage requires a shrine, and she approaches common objects like sacrificial offerings.
Remarkably, Leibovitz's destinations include Spiral Jetty by the very prophet of entropy, Robert Smithson. Yet she finds it no longer rising and sinking into the Great Salt Lake, but caked in salt as receding waters give way once and for all to a pristine white.