Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage

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Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage
© the artist, from 'Pilgrimage', Random House, 2011
'Niagara Falls, Ontario', 2009, by Annie Leibovitz

Annie Leibovitz, spoiled darling of Vanity Fair, legendary blower of budgets both personal and professional, is not usually your go-to girl for a four-star show. Her really interesting work, much of it for Rolling Stone, was decades ago; the kind of immaculate celebrity gloss she purveys for VF has everything to do with myth-management (theirs, not hers) and little to do with art.

Yet it seems that debt (she was threatened with the loss of the rights to all her work by a loan company's lawsuit) and public humiliation (how can anyone with a gigantic salary and legendary expenses have ended up in a loan company's claws in the first place?) have been good for Leibovitz. She is not quite the pilgrim this title suggests – photographing Niagara Falls is hardly a humble act – but if a pilgrimage can be defined as a protracted journey into the realms of the dead, this exhibition is well-named. Here, in loving detail, are the hat and gloves Lincoln wore the night he was assassinated – the latter as wrinkled as his famous face, and ominously stained. Here is Sigmund Freud's rug-draped couch, that misappropriated floor-covering a fine visual definition of the Freudian uncanny.

And here is the great photographer Ansel Adams's darkroom, crisply delineated, thanks to digital technology, with just the benefit of a red bulb: an unconventional monument to bygone greatness but also an un-Adams-ish celebration of progress. Unlike Leibovitz's celebrity work, most of these images (a selection from her book of the same name) are small-format, modest, beautiful and thought-provoking. Sometimes, it seems, pilgrimages really do engender miracles.


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