Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum features work by Annie Leibovitz

Feb 10, 2014

The photographer Annie Leibovitz is best known for shooting celebrities. Her elaborately staged work is a staple of Vanity Fair and Vogue magazines. But a few years ago, she set out on a more personal project, a pilgrimage to capture places and objects connected to people who've inspired her, including Abraham Lincoln. That work now is part of an exhibit, called “Pilgrimage," that opened over the weekend at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield. Illinois Public Radio's Brian Mackey takes us to the exhibit for a conversation with Leibovitz.

Enter the museum and walk to the main plaza. The gallery is across from the White House, next to a replica’s of Lincoln’s boyhood log cabin. It’s a long, white room. The photos — 78 in all — are tightly clustered on all four walls.

"I always imagine it a certain way. I didn’t want it to be precious. It’s not that kind of project, it was really more of like a travelogue. There’s a small problem where there’s kind of a tendency to want to be reverent to the material. It’s baloney. It’s really wonderful material. It’s meant to be seen next to each other, crunched together, salon style, everything sort of is like six degrees of separation from everything else."

So an image from Martha Graham’s dance studio leads to Elvis’ Graceland, which lead to dresses of Marian Anderson and Emily Dickinson. Much like the exhibit, conversation with Leibovitz involves unexpected juxtapositions and shifts in attention. So a question about Abraham Lincoln requires a detour through Pete Seeger’s workshop.

“You know I live in New York City, but I actually think of myself more akin to the Hudson Valley. So I think it was kind of my answer to not being able to locate Lincoln’s log cabin, that I eventually ended up at Pete Seeger’s house. He built his own log cabin on the side of the hill there.”

Like many men who came of age during the Great Depression, Seeger seems to have kept every wrench, every clamp, every coffee can.

“What’s great about that photograph is I went to photograph the log cabin, and I ended up finding this room, which was a workshop. And his grandson was there. Pete Seeger’s grandson was there and he said, 'You know, what I love about my grandfather’s house is you can put something down and come back in 10 years and it’ll still be there.’ So the workshop is sort of like, if you live long enough, that’s what your rooms can eventually look like. It has that kind of organized clutter to it. This kind of layer upon layer upon layer.”

So can you talk a little bit about what drew you to Lincoln in particular? You started out in Kentucky.

“Well you know, the project is an interesting story because — I was thinking about this this morning as I was flying in — it really was a list of places to go to. I was really thinking about places. And on my initial list, I had the Lincoln Memorial on the list. I had Graceland on the list. And the list came about after I had done some spontaneous work at Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst, not really thinking I was going to do a project or anything. And later on that summer, I photographed Niagara Falls with my children. And as I went back to work that fall and started to look at this really personal work, I realized that I wanted to — I wrote down a list of places that meant something. I didn’t have any rhyme or reason. I think I was looking for a — certainly — a kind of break from my day to day assignment work, and looking to see what I still had in me. And in the long run, it started off as a series of places. So, Lincoln Memorial. What came out of Lincoln Memorial? Well..."

Marian Anderson came out of the Lincoln Memorial — she famously performed there after she was denied use of two concert halls to sing for an integrated audience. Leibovitz followed Daniel Chester French — sculptor of the statue in the heart of the Lincoln Memorial — up to Concord, Massachusetts. There she encountered Emerson and Thoreau and Alcott, all of whom are represented in the collection.

“This amazing conclave of people, I mean Louisa May Alcott used Emerson’s books, his library, to read and grow up on. And May Alcott taught Daniel Chester French art. ... But, didn’t know that. This is all six degrees of separation.” 

Leibovitz at one point went looking for the cabin in which Lincoln was born. She found out it doesn’t actually exist, but she drove the Lincoln Heritage Trail from Kentucky, up through Indiana, and over to Springfield.

“And these people — I actually came to photograph the Gettysburg Address, because they have one of the five existing copies — not copies, in Lincoln’s handwriting of the Gettysburg Address. And I had read that it was being — they only take it out for a little time every year, so when I originally met and started talking to the library, they were talking to me about the day it gets transferred, I can maybe shoot it, on the way over."

No special privileges for you.

“They’re not that — let’s be clear: they did try to help as best they could. and they did let me spend a little longer time with it than that, down in the vault. I got the opportunity to work down there. But, again, this is what happens on this journey: I was looking at the top hat … and I photographed it, and right next to it were those gloves that Lincoln purportedly had in his pocket the night he was killed. And they were so riveting. I mean, you can see the shape of his hands. It looked like you were looking at his hands."

Leibovitz says she was “seduced” by Lincoln's gloves. You cannot see people in any of the pictures. And yet, you can feel their presence through the objects they used, the places they made. That includes Yosemite National Park, and one of the men most responsible for making it what it is today: photographer Ansel Adams.

“I think one of his breakthrough pictures was when he did Half Dome, and he put a red filter in his camera that created a dark sky. It isn't something you would normally put on the lens. It’s to create more contrast; he created more blacks. And he himself said people would come to where I took my photographs and they would say, ‘Well it doesn’t look like that.’ "

Leibovitz went to recreate one of Adams’ most famous shots, from Inspiration Point, looking out over the valley toward Half Dome. But something just wasn’t right.

“It needed clouds. I went back three times trying to get clouds. And when you see them in the show, they’re not big. I didn’t make the prints big. They really are exercises. They’re just sort of like little tableaus, little homages to Ansel, and they do show the three different trips. It was just this idea of waiting for the clouds, and trying to do something without manipulating it. We have so many ways now digitally, it’s not uncommon to add clouds, or in fact you’ve probably been reading how I’ve been changing backgrounds. It was important to me that this material was very very straight. It’s kind of what you see is what you get."