The Pilgrimage project took Annie Leibovitz to places that she could explore with no agenda. She wasn’t on assignment. She chose the subjects simply because they meant something to her. Leibovitz is a celebrated portraitist, but the Pilgrimage photographs have no people in them. They are notes for portraits.
The project was begun almost by accident, when Leibovitz visited Emily Dickinson’s home in Amherst, Massachusetts, and, a few months later, when she traveled with her children to Niagara Falls. She had just started using small digital cameras, which gave her a new technical freedom and the ability to travel light. Pilgrimage is Leibovitz’s first purely digital project.
Leibovitz often returned to the same site many times in her explorations. Concord, Massachusetts, was a particularly rich arena of discovery. She went there first to photograph Walden Pond and was drawn into the world of the Concord writers and thinkers: Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott and her father, Bronson. One of the Alcott sisters was a mentor to Daniel Chester French, the Beaux Arts sculptor whose most famous work is the seated statue in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Leibovitz photographed French’s studio in western Massachusetts, where he created the Lincoln statue, and she followed this vein to the National Archives, where a rare multiple-lens glass plate of a Lincoln portrait is kept. The Lincoln thread led her to the Gettysburg battlefield, where she traced the movements of Alexander Gardner and the photographers from Mathew Brady’s studio whose work established the foundations for modern war photography. As time went on, Leibovitz began to use more sophisticated cameras and a tripod and to travel with an assistant, but the project remained personal. The pictures are sometimes stylised, sometimes abstract, sometimes literal views of the interiors of living rooms and bedrooms, landscapes, and talismanic objects. Leibovitz speaks of the project’s restorative value for her more conventional work. “From the beginning, when I was watching my children stand mesmerized over Niagara Falls, it was an exercise in renewal,” she says. “It taught me to see again."