By Annie Leibovitz
Introduction by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Jonathan Cape – £35.00
To say Annie Leibovitz’s Pilgrimage is a conceptually brave, although artistically redundant collection of surprisingly average photographs, is a rather unfortunate, albeit honest understatement. Compiled during what was obviously a financial and emotionally difficult time for the photographer (and usually an excellent one at that), I’m sad to say the work herein reflects far too much melancholic sobriety for its own good.
What ought to have been a poignant traipse through the back pages of some of her inspiration – visiting the homes and hideaways of iconic people of interest to her from Charles Darwin to Emily Dickinson, Elvis Presley to Virginia Woolf – has instead evolved into nothing other than a cryptic collection of partially self-induced confusion. As a result, I don’t in the least agree with the concluding words of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Introduction: ‘’What strikes me most about this collection is that even when Annie and I spend time at the same place, we see different things. She has captured the spirit of the people and places in this book as surely as thousands of words could ever do.’’
I’d like to agree, but I can’t, and I absolutely don’t.
Admittedly, a picture does indeed paint a thousand words, far more words than most of us could ever assimilate; all of them unique; all of them different. But surely a picture has to initially sparkle in some way, especially if it’s to trigger some sort of deft, colourful debate? Sadly, most of the photographs throughout this particular pilgrimage don’t sparkle in the least. They’re far too weighted by some sort of idiosyncratic (maudlin) importance.
As such, they’re far too considered, and I say this for two reasons. The first of which lies within the very opening gambit of the book wherein Leibovitz writes: ‘’’Several years ago, Susan Sontag and I were planning something that we called the Beauty Book. The Beauty Book was going to provide an excuse for us to travel around to places we cared about and wanted to see. For me, it meant going back to taking pictures when I was moved to take a picture. When there wasn’t an agenda. If you are on assignment for a magazine, there are always agendas. Things that have to get done. I care about my assignment work, but I wanted to try working without that pressure. To be in a situation where I took a picture just because I saw it.
After Susan died, I knew that I couldn’t do the Beauty Book, although as time passed, I realized that I might do a different book, with a different list of places. The list would, inevitably, be coloured by my memory of Susan and what she was interested in, but it would be my list. This wasn’t an idea that seemed obvious at first. It came gradually. Emily Dickinson was Susan’s favourite poet.’’
If these words don’t read like an inadvertent assignment, then I don’t know what does. If any thing, what Leibovitz writes amounts to an emotional assignment of the highest calibre, and this is reflected within the quintessential sombre nature of the photography.
The second reason I find this entire collection far too weighted in sobriety, is because death looms large. For instance, there are some intriguing pictures of Charleston House in Lewes, Sussex – which I adore and have visited on numerous occasions – but even here, the images are set amid speculative ramblings of Emily Dickinson, which doesn’t exactly enable said images to sparkle.
In truth, the book lacks focus and clarity. Apart from the fact that most of the written text isn’t aligned with what one is actually looking at (for instance, Abraham Lincoln and the Gettysburg address is confusingly set amid pictures of Elvis Presley memorabilia – his record player, his mother’s dresses, his 1957 Harley-Davidson) ensures Pilgrimage is far too dour and confusing a photographic homage, to Leibovitz’s aforementioned ‘beauty book.’