WASHINGTON — Photographer Annie Leibovitz says she has come back from some dark days and revived her creativity with a new photography project now on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum that marks a departure from her popular celebrity portraits.
Two years ago, Leibovitz was facing millions in debt and a mismanaged fortune that nearly cost her legal rights to some of pop culture’s most memorable images she created. The ordeal was a good lesson in managing her business, Leibovitz said, but left her “emotionally and mentally depleted.”
On Tuesday, she led a tour through the photographs she says renewed her inspiration with a few road trips through U.S. history. The idea grew out of a book she had wanted to make with her partner, Susan Sontag, with a list of destinations and an excuse to visit them. After Sontag died, she eventually revived the idea with her young children.
It began with a six-hour drive to Niagara Falls during her financial troubles only to find out her credit card had been rejected at a hotel and their rooms had been given away. While they found another place to stay, Leibovitz was upset wanted to go home. But she agreed to go to a lookout point over the waterfalls with her kids.
“I was sitting off to the side, feeling a little down, and I saw my children mesmerized, studying the falls,” she said. “And I walked over, stood behind them … and I took this picture.”
It’s a snapshot anyone could have taken, she said: an image that captures the blue-green water before it plunges over the falls. Soon she began thinking of other places to visit.
The images that would become “Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage” include depictions of landscapes and people, but no faces. Instead, Leibovitz photographed historic objects and scenes, including the homes of “Little Women” author Louisa May Alcott, essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, entertainer Elvis Presley and others.
“I was swept away when I walked into these places,” she said. “I found myself taking pictures and not thinking about any consequences. I was seduced.”
There were obstacles, though. One was coming to terms with photographing objects, she said, and finding a way to give them some emotion. She began creating close-up images, as with a nightdress worn by Emily Dickinson when she was known for roaming around her house in a nightgown. Leibovitz zoomed in on the intricate detail.
“That is not my kind of picture. I mean, I don’t ever come in tight like that,” Leibovitz said. “It’s not me.”
It’s also her first all-digital photography show. Leibovitz said she is still learning about new technology and about herself.
“This is an amazing time to be a photographer,” she said. “I discovered things about myself which were really comforting, that the work had a deep well, that it wasn’t going to go away.”
She also learned it was a mistake to leave her business affairs to others to manage.
“I mean, I had a great ride,” she said. “I was like a girl who went out and took pictures, and everyone else took care of everything else. Now I really do need to take care of everything.”
Leibovitz didn’t discuss the status of her debt but said she has good business advisers. “I’m back, for all intents and purposes,” she said.
Her travels for “Pilgrimage” produced images of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s couch, sharpshooter Annie Oakley’s heart-shaped shooting target, Presley’s Harley-Davidson and a TV he once shot with a gun at Graceland.
As a nod to Sontag, Leibovitz visited the home of Virginia Woolf, one of her partner’s favorite writers, where she was happy to learn such a brilliant person could have such a messy studio, she said.
Andy Grundberg, guest curator for the show and a dean at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, said Leibovitz is presenting cultural history in a new way.
“She’s trying to convey a sense of people without the people actually being there in front of the camera,” he said of Leibovitz’ travels. “She was kind of bushwhacking through our cultural legacy and figuring it out as she went along.”
In some cases, one destination would lead to several others. Leibovitz was fascinated with the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, which led her to find Lincoln’s top hat at the Smithsonian, models for Lincoln’s statue in the studio of sculptor Daniel Chester French, and to a concert gown of Marian Anderson, who sang at the memorial when she was shut out of a segregated concert hall.
Leibovitz eventually compiled the project into a book that evolved into the new exhibit. The show is on view in Washington through May 20 and then will travel to U.S. museums through 2014.
Leibovitz said she pursued her new project to protect her lucrative portrait work and to go back to it revived.
“It’s a project I did for myself. I wanted to be seduced into a photograph and not make it up,” she said. “And I wanted to take my time.”