Leibovitz Takes A 'Pilgrimage' For Artistic Renewal From John Lennon curled around Yoko Ono to a pregnant Demi Moore, photographer Annie Leibovitz has made a career of capturing people. But her latest collection is something very different. In Pilgrimage, Leibovitz focuses her lens on places and objects that have special meaning for her.
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Leibovitz Takes A 'Pilgrimage' For Artistic Renewal

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Leibovitz Takes A 'Pilgrimage' For Artistic Renewal

Leibovitz Takes A 'Pilgrimage' For Artistic Renewal

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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Annie Leibovitz is famous for her portraits: John Lennon curled around Yoko Ono, the Vanity Fair cover of a nude and pregnant Demi Moore, Arnold Schwarzenegger on horseback, countless others.

But amid the stress of near-financial disaster, she decided to put aside her assignments and start a personal project. And she started with a list of the places she wanted to visit, places where she could take the pictures she wanted to, the homes of writers and artists and thinkers she admired and the rooms and landscapes they inhabited, figures as eclectic as Eleanor Roosevelt and Georgia O'Keeffe, Elvis Presley and Ansel Adams.

She describes the project as an exercise in renewal. So tell us: What places would you visit as a source of personal and artistic renewal? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Supreme Court reporter David Savage joins us with an update on this morning's oral arguments about technology, privacy and surveillance. But first, photographer Annie Leibovitz. Her latest book is "Pilgrimage," and she joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.

ANNIE LEIBOVITZ: Nice to be here.


CONAN: Can you tell us about that amazing picture of Niagara Falls on the cover of "Pilgrimage"? This is not an image for the faint of heart.

LEIBOVITZ: I'm not quite sure what you mean by that, but it was the inspiration for the work. It was really the photograph - it was really the image that made me think that a project like this would be a great thing to do. I was in the middle of, you know, a pretty nasty year there, and I had - my children were a little frustrated with me not being around as much as I should have been, and I took them for a trip to Niagara Falls.

And we stayed around our house in Upstate New York, and I was, you know, not in the best of moods, but they were skipping around, having a great time. And I saw them sort of wander over towards a point where they overlooked the falls.

And they were standing there mesmerized - mesmerized. And I walked over to where they were, and I stood behind them, and I saw this extraordinary vista, this sort of sense of floating over the falls, not unlike a Frederic Church painting, from a bird's-eye point of view. I mean, you can walk up to this point. It's not like it's a difficult place to get to.

And I took the picture, and it - again, this project was something that I had considered doing with Susan Sontag when she was still alive. And then after she died, it, of course, went away. And then I - of course, it would have been different places. But I sat down again and started thinking of places, and especially with the advent of the introduction of the new digital camera, I was discovering that digital rendered in a more realistic way and, you know, and you needed very little light.

And so I was off. I was off. I made a crazy list, and, you know, just sort of went down a different path. I loved, I loved doing this project. It was great. It's endless. It's - you know, every single subject that I encountered, you know, had mounds and mounds of history and thought. And I only touched lightly, you know, on a lot of it.

CONAN: I called it not for the faint of heart because you can just about plunge over the falls looking at it. It's vertigo right there.

LEIBOVITZ: Well, yeah, I mean, there is a - there certainly are some metaphors here for sure, but, you know, I was talking about this earlier today, I mean, it's - you know, it's - there's definitely a lot of material here to sort of take in a lot of - take in a lot of different thoughts. And yes, you can either jump or, you know, just look.


LEIBOVITZ: You know, it's definitely - it's compelling. It's definitely compelling. But, you know, again, what's amazing about that picture is my children showed me this picture, and - as children do. I mean, they show you so many things. And, you know, I guess you could say there's a lot to live for.


CONAN: Many of the places on Annie Leibovitz's list are quite familiar to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. She wrote the book's introduction, and joins us now by phone from Richmond, where she's on the set of the movie "Lincoln," which is being directed by Steven Spielberg. The film is based on her book "Team of Rivals." And Doris Kearns Goodwin, nice to have you with us.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Oh, I'm delighted to be with you and Annie, absolutely.

LEIBOVITZ: Oh, I didn't know Doris was going to make it. I'm - welcome, Doris, I...

GOODWIN: Oh, I was trying. I knew - I wasn't sure I could, but I wanted to so much. So here I am.


LEIBOVITZ: Well, you know, I talked Doris into doing this because I was at a Norman Mailer gala, and Doris was, of course, very good friends with Norman Mailer. And she told us an extraordinary story about if you were a young writer and you could walk through, you know, Norman's house and see his books and see his desk and, you know, see how he lived and how he wrote, you know, how extraordinary.

And I felt it was a very - on a very parallel path as to what I was doing. So it took a little while. I talked Doris into it.


GOODWIN: Well, I'm glad you did. I mean, you know, I think what makes the book so special is that - and you're right. You can look at in a lot of different ways. But for me as an historian, nothing matters more than to be able to catapult oneself back into time, to the place where the person I'm writing about woke up in the morning and went to bed at night, you know, the paths they crossed, chairs they sat in, what they saw when they looked out the window.

That's how you feel like you've recreated their daily life. And somehow, you know, what Annie's been able to do, from Eleanor Roosevelt's incredible house at Val-Kill, and then the sights in Concord, which is my hometown, of Emerson, Alcott and Thoreau, the studios, the workplaces, the libraries. It's a different way of looking at recreating life than the faces of the person, but she has such a different kind of - and she has a visual genius.

She and I talked about this, and I think it's very different from what I have. I don't see things like that, so - but I see the people. And she's seeing them in a very different way, living in these places.

CONAN: It's interesting. You made an observation in your introduction that you had seen the top hat Abraham Lincoln wore to Ford's Theater. Before, you had not focused on what Annie Leibovitz focused on.

GOODWIN: No, that's exactly right. I mean, there's a different eye that's focusing on each one of these places, I think, actually. I'll never forget, once I was going through the William Randolph Hearst estate with a boyfriend who was very artistic and very visual. And there was a couple in front of us who were having an argument. They were an affair, and they were about to break up.


GOODWIN: And all I cared about was listening to them. And afterwards, he said, well, what did you think of this and that and that? And I hadn't seen anything. I think we broke up at that moment.


GOODWIN: But the great thing about her book is it really combines. What you realize is the visual stuff can tell you the same thing I'm looking for about the people's relationship through diaries and letters, because it recreates the place in which they were, and you can imagine them there, which is so exciting.

LEIBOVITZ: Well, I think photographers have a very hard time retrieving words, and, you know, we go into this place where we see something. And I, you know, and I do think that what Doris does is, you know, she manages to - it's poetry to really describe something in words that, you know, I feel limited with words. And anyway, it was an interesting pairing, the both of us.

CONAN: Well, Doris Kearns Goodwin, we wanted to thank you. I know you're just taking a moment away from the set. Are we going to get to see you in this movie, other than your name at the beginning?


GOODWIN: I don't know. There was a hope that I could be an extra, but I would have had to come down last week, which I couldn't, for continuity. So I think you will not see my face, like Alfred Hitchcock.

CONAN: Oh, well, it's a shame.

GOODWIN: But it's going to be an incredible movie, I can tell you already from what I've seen. It's really pretty exciting.

LEIBOVITZ: But before you go away, I just wanted to say that, you know, I became obsessed with Lincoln, and I could see, of course, you know, your great work, Doris, on Lincoln. But, you know, how - you know, I ended up going out into the country and doing the Heritage Route, the trail which begins in Kentucky and then goes up to Indiana and then ends in Springfield.

But it's out there. It's out there. These places are out there, you know, for all of us to - you don't have to make an appointment. You can get out there and drive and see all of these places that we talk about and we see.

CONAN: Doris Kearns Goodwin, thanks very much for your time.

GOODWIN: You're more than welcome. Take care, both of you.

LEIBOVITZ: Thank you, Doris.

CONAN: Still with us, photographer Annie Leibovitz. Her new book is called "Pilgrimage." She mentioned it began with a list of places where she wanted to go, people she wanted - is it fair to say some of these are portraits of people who aren't there?

LEIBOVITZ: I think they do work like portraits. I think some of them are fragmented. You know, I was - it really is a sort of a search for, you know, elements of - emotional elements of people who are gone. And there's one living person in the book, Pete Seeger, who I was just compelled by the fact that he built his own, you know, log cabin.

You know, he chopped down his own trees, and I wanted to photograph that log cabin. And then, of course, I found - ended up finding this extraordinary workshop that he had inside of his barn, that if you get a chance to see the photograph, it's just filled with so many things, and every single spot is just - it looks like the inside of a mind.

And - but I admired him so much, I wanted to take this - you know, I wanted to take these pictures. I really wanted to photograph the log cabin. But yes, there's also a funny story about Pete Seeger. His grandson was there, and he told me that what was great about his grandfather's place is when you put something down, you could come back in 10 years, and it would still be there in the same spot, you know.


LEIBOVITZ: So - but I guess, you know, there was never that attempt to make a complete portrait, though. But it's more that these are elements that are left. In fact, I was talking about this picture earlier today, the Martha Graham storeroom up in Yonkers. I went looking for Martha Graham's costume that she wore in the Emily Dickinson ballet, modern dance "Letter to the World." And it didn't really exist any longer.

But the company helped me go through some boxes up in their Yonkers storeroom. And it was sort of, again, like - it was as if you were inside, you know, a treasure house, but it was, like, sort of the end of the treasure. It was sort of dark and cavernous, and there was just a few pieces left, Noguchi props and - anyway. But so, no, I'm not too sure that these are exactly portraits. It's really the remnants of people that's...

CONAN: More with Annie Leibovitz in just a moment. Her latest collection of photographs is titled "Pilgrimage." Call and tell us what places you would visit as a source of personal and artistic renewal: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Annie Leibovitz made a career photographing people: models, celebrities, musicians. Her latest collection is more personal, and yet shows no people at all. She turns her lens instead on the places and things that mean something to her: Ansel Adams' dark room, Sigmund Freud's couch, a pigeon skeleton from Charles Darwin's collection.

You can see a slideshow of those images and several others from the book "Pilgrimage" at our website, npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Annie Leibovitz is our guest this hour, and we'd like to hear from you. What places would you visit as a source of personal and artistic renewal? 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And let's begin with Christina, Christina calling us from Tucson.

CHRISTINA: Yes, hi. I would want to go to Spain, like Barcelona, possibly Seville, because my mother's ancestors were Spanish, some of them. And they had to flee Spain, and they went to Holland. And I want to go back and say: I'm here. We made it.


CONAN: So, complete the circle.


LEIBOVITZ: That sounds wonderful. I think you should. I think - definitely think you should. I stayed mostly in America. There were a couple places that I went to in England, Virginia Woolf's writing studio at Monk House and the Charleston farmhouse and Sigmund Freud, his couch, and Charles Darwin, of all people.

But yes, I think that more personal it can be, that sounds like you're looking for, you know, the history in your family. And I think that makes - you should definitely do that.

CHRISTINA: There's more than that. You know, I'm named Christina, and my husband is Alfonso. And there was King Alfonso the Just and Queen Christina. So I went to the palace, as well, where they lived.

CONAN: Okay, well, the palaces, your people did not come from palaces, I take it?

CHRISTINA: No, no, no. That would just be a namesake thing.


CONAN: Well, good luck with the trip, Christina.

CHRISTINA: Thank you. Bye.

CONAN: You - interestingly, there are a couple of photographers, and in some ways there's a lot of photography history in this book. One of them - again, in England - Julia Margaret Cameron, obviously Ansel Adams, but Julia Margaret Cameron, I was not so familiar with her work, and I thought that was fascinating.

LEIBOVITZ: I was sort of always impressed - or I couldn't quite understand how Julia Margaret Cameron did all of her pictures, it seemed like almost in a dark place. And she lived on an island. She lived on the Isle of Wight. And I never quite understood how that worked. And she was very close with Tennyson and walked the downs every day.

And I just thought it was strange that she - we never saw the island in those pictures, but of course not, because she was totally into the people she was photographing. And she was apparently a terror to have take your picture because, you know, in those days, you had to stay still for about seven or eight minutes, and it was - her picture sessions have been described as very, very difficult.

But the pictures were beautiful. They were extraordinary. They - you know, they were not necessarily, you know, in focus. She had a lens that only had a very small focal length. And her son, who became a photographer, sort of berated her for her work being sort of soft.

His work was very sharp, very clear, very well-developed, and it was kind of boring, you know, actually.


LEIBOVITZ: So mistakes are part of what's important.

CONAN: You also write and photograph about Ansel Adams. And one of the interesting things is you visit a lot of the places that he takes his pictures from and say it's interesting. You can go to those places and still take those pictures, and then you quote Ansel Adams as saying: People can go to those places and take those pictures, and they're disappointed they don't look like mine.


LEIBOVITZ: I think Ansel Adams did say that because, you know, he had this idea that he pre-visualized his pictures. I had an idea for this series of pictures that I wanted to honor Ansel, because his view of Yosemite is what we think of when we think of Yosemite. And if we didn't have those pictures, we, you know, there's a good chance we might not have had Yosemite - of course along with John Muir, who was very, very important.

But you can go to that spot. You know, I remember doing an Ansel Adams workshop in 1984 and going there and standing in the spot where - probably where Ansel, you know, stood. And I sort of snapped the pictures and said, oh, my gosh, you know, it looks like an Ansel Adams, you know, landscape.

You can go to that spot today, and it's a Mecca now, for photographers. There's at least always one to 50 photographers on that ridge, photographing the valleys. It's extraordinary. I actually, you know, I went back to Yosemite two or three times for this book, trying to get a picture of the valley with clouds. Every time I went, there were no clouds. And...

CONAN: Some people wouldn't complain about that.

LEIBOVITZ: No, that's true. I - but - you know, the clouds in the valley, you know, just make it very handsome and very beautiful. In no way was I trying to compete with Ansel Adams. I'm not a landscape photographer. But I was trying to take a good picture. And I was talking to Jean Adams, you know, Ansel's daughter-in-law, and she said to me: Oh, Annie, you know, Ansel would sometimes wait three weeks for clouds. You know, so...


LEIBOVITZ: So, of course, you know, I was popping in and out of Yosemite, which isn't exactly easy to do, popping in and out, in between - you know, this is not my day job. And so I - she actually went on to say: And do you know that some photographers, you know, old landscape photographers would take clouds from other pictures and put them in pictures?

And of course I cringed because I think of my day-to-day work, where we do, you know, we do a lot of retouching now, digitally. And so I was determined to take a picture that was correct, right and not touched. So I went back two or three times to take that picture.

When I went to school, Ansel, you know, was not someone that I could say that - someone that I, you know, admired, you know. And as I have grown older, I've come around and realize the great importance of his work. And so that's the significance of him in this series of pictures now.

CONAN: Let's get Jonathan on the line, and Jonathan's with us from Stockton, California.

JONATHAN: Yes, my dream place to go for renewal is actually Jim Henson's workshop and the late Stan Winston's office and workshop, as a special effects artist. I actually just finished a project in San Jose, at the Winchester Mystery House, for their Fright Night.

LEIBOVITZ: Oh, my God, the Winchester Mystery House. That has been around so long.


LEIBOVITZ: It's so amazing. That's from - is that from the late - I mean the late 1800s, it must be. It's such an extraordinary house. I have never been to it, but it was legendary when I lived in California. Do you want to talk about what it is?

JONATHAN: Well, I can't say much. All that I did for the house - they had the first time this year a haunted attraction, a haunted maze, and myself and my fiancee and a team of make-up artists were in charge of making up the actors to scare the guests as they came through.

CONAN: Oh, so they would jump out from behind things or lurch down from the ceiling, that sort of thing?

JONATHAN: Yeah. We have a cast of about 60 actors, the first time that they've ever had anything like this at a house. And we actually ended up first in the Bay Area and number six in the nation for our first year.

CONAN: Well, that's interesting. There's one of those Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, too, which is...


LEIBOVITZ: Oh, my God. This is a house that was, you know, in the Winchester family. I believe there was a death, and the wife kept continuing to build, and she kept adding rooms that made no sense. And there were rooms added and added and added that, you know, led nowhere off of hallways. And it's a very bizarre house.

JONATHAN: Yeah, that was Sarah Winchester, and she did it because she felt that she had to appease the spirits of the people killed by the Winchester rifle. She felt her family was cursed by those spirits. She was a very spiritual woman.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call, Jonathan. Appreciate it.

JONATHAN: Thank you so much. All right.

CONAN: You visit a lot of workshops for this book.


CONAN: Yeah, I think you did. I kept...

LEIBOVITZ: I mean, workshops or do you mean studios?

CONAN: Studios, yes.

LEIBOVITZ: Probably the heart of the book, to me, is going out to Santa Fe and seeing Georgia O'Keeffe's, you know, two homes in Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch. And it was - you know, I just never had quite taken in how extraordinary she was. I - when I went to the home at Abiquiu, which she moved into after spending some time at Ghost Ranch, she went there for two reasons. One, there was a door in the patio area that she always - that she ended up painting over and over and over again.

And then she - that house had irrigation rights. So she could start her garden. So at the age of 50, she started a vegetable garden, and she started eating what she calls correctly. But just to see how she lived and how, you know, frugally she lived and how sparsely she lived and how extraordinary - how you need very little and, you know, her views and - it was just a wonderful time to go through those buildings in that land and those vistas.

CONAN: Jean Shea(ph) tweeted us: The Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab, Utah, its beautiful land and the work being done there is medicine for the mind and soul. Well, that's interesting, same landscape. Scott's on the line with us from Charlotte.


CONAN: Go ahead, Scott. You're on the air.

SCOTT: Yes. The Audubon Theater is what I'd like to visit in...

CONAN: In uptown Manhattan.


CONAN: And why the Audubon Theater? It's known for being the site where Malcolm X was assassinated.

SCOTT: Exactly. That's why I would - it's interesting to me.

CONAN: Why that?

SCOTT: Well, you know, it's a place of sadness and it's just really something - I heard it was going to be torn down. I'd like to see it before they tear it down.

LEIBOVITZ: I think that's great. That's good. Are they tearing it down?

SCOTT: I heard that they were.

LEIBOVITZ: Mm-hmm. It's hard to hold onto things. That's for sure.

SCOTT: Exactly. And (unintelligible)...

CONAN: What would you get out of it, do you think, Scott?

SCOTT: Well, somewhat of closure because, you know, I've read the book - I actually talked Betty Shabazz before she died, and it would just give me a sense of closure, I guess.

CONAN: Have you read the new Manning Marable book that just came out earlier this year?


CONAN: It is a remarkable piece of work. It's up for the National Book Award later this - just next week. So it is - we've discussed it. He, of course, died just as the book was published, unfortunately, but is an extraordinary biography of Malcolm X. And if you're that interested, you should really take a look. It's not a short book, but it's a good read.

SCOTT: OK. I'll definitely do that.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the call, Scott.

SCOTT: Thank you.

CONAN: Talking with Annie Leibovitz about her new book, which is called "Pilgrimage." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News. And I wanted to bring - we started talking with Doris Kearns Goodwin. And I wanted to bring you back around to photography and to Lincoln. Among the places you visit is Gettysburg, and that, of course, where Matthew Brady and some of his helpers took some famous photographs and staged some famous photographs too.

LEIBOVITZ: I didn't really know how to enter Gettysburg. I - when I went to Gettysburg, I thought I was going to photograph a, sort of, an empty landscape, and it's actually - anyone who's been there, of course, knows it has like over 1,300 monuments and plaques, and that's actually, you know, commemorative plaques all over the farmland there. And I actually - it's true, I entered Gettysburg pretty much as - thinking the way Alexander Gardner, who worked for Brady, you know, went on to the battlefield. And he went in several days later, you know, after the battle. And most of the, you know, the dead hadn't been buried, especially the Union dead hadn't been buried. And there was a very famous picture taken, you know, in the rocks, in the Devil Den rocks and it was called, you know, the Confederate's sharpshooter. And a body laid there with a gun.

And then it turned out that it's been well documented that that body was moved about 75 feet to make that photograph. So there was a little, you know, unorthodox hanky panky going on there. But I - no, I - it was incredible to sort of learn about the battlefield and the battle and, you know, Pickett's Charge. And I totally emptied my living room at Thanksgiving after about three hours talking about, you know, Gettysburg last year.


LEIBOVITZ: So - but it's extraordinary. I mean, it's still farmland and the Park Services does an extraordinary job of returning it to, you know, what it was. And as I was driving down one road about, you know, three miles off the main part of the battlefield, there was this extraordinary orange tree and wash hanging on a line and a farmhouse, and there was still a farm. And I found out later that it was a farm that existed during the time of the battle.

CONAN: Let's get one more caller in. This is Ethan, Ethan with us from San Francisco.

ETHAN: Wow. I'm on the TALK OF THE NATION. This is unbelievable. Yeah. Annie, I - it's really interesting that this is coming up. I took a line from your "At Work" recommendation you had there to go back to the people closest to you. And it's kind of the same place and the same person that I went back to. I was trying to complete this 10-year project I have looking at the United States, and the whole thing kind of started out by accident when I was 17 after September 11th. And anyway, my interpretation of a lot of these things hasn't been that we've gone the right direction, to say the least.

So it's not the happiest project or the most upbeat optimistic thing. But I really wanted to close it with something that just could kind of I guess like some sort of - something that could carry other people and carry myself, kind of, close it and, I don't know, bring - in a certain way the place that was the one that I felt just could provide that ended up being, well, my grandmother's kitchen table. And I guess...

LEIBOVITZ: Oh, I love that.

ETHAN: ...I got that inspiration from that line in "At Work," to go back to the people closest to you. And anyway, it's my 91-year-old grandmother, really stern-faced and just giving the middle finger, basically. So it's kind of a strange portrait...


ETHAN: ...but it had to be done, and, in a strange way, I kind of look at your advice to getting me there. So...

LEIBOVITZ: No, I – sounds very strong. Very good.

CONAN: Ethan, thanks very much for the call and good luck. Is the project complete?

ETHAN: The project is complete. I'm currently crowd funding. I'm showing to a couple of publishers still, but I think that the - I'm going to end up producing this book on my own here. And the show is up in Northern California. And in 2012 I'm going to be taking all this work all over the place, so...

CONAN: Good luck with that, Ethan.

ETHAN: ...I'll get a look.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Appreciate the phone call.

LEIBOVITZ: I think what's so great is you can self-publish now, I mean, and I think that is what, you know, what we're talking about with the Web now. I mean, you can.

CONAN: Annie Leibovitz's new book is called "Pilgrimages." It includes a marvelous fold-out, one fold-out. It is Henry David Thoreau's bed. Thanks so much for your time today. Good luck with the book.

LEIBOVITZ: Thank you very much, Neal. Thank you.

CONAN: Annie Leibovitz joined us from our bureau in New York. Up next: arguments today at the Supreme Court, where the attention is on surveillance, privacy and law enforcement's use of new technology. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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