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States of Grace

by Karen Sommer Shalett | DC magazine | December 27, 2011

You can’t blame a person for imagining Annie Leibovitz as an exacting aesthete. Or even a scrappy hustler. And likely, she’s both. But all preconceptions went out the Hay-Adams window when I recently sat down with this intimate, nostalgic creative who’s prone to tears over the highlights of her own history, as well as that of our country. Leibovitz will return to DC for the launch of her latest Smithsonian exhibition on Jan. 20, when she’ll lead her fans on a veritable treasure hunt through her own journey.

Looking at the national treasures you’ve captured in your book Pilgrimage, it seems like a love letter to the country.
I was going down another road altogether. My publisher didn’t necessarily want this book. I was going through a rough time in business, and people looking at my finances were telling me to take on advertising jobs. But I knew I had to do this to reclaim my soul.

What made you think driving around the country, searching for Thoreau’s bed or Martha Graham’s costumes, would give you back something you’d lost?
My dad was in the military. We grew up driving from base to base—Biloxi to Fairbanks to Fort Worth. We put up with a lot of Alaska jokes when we got to Texas. Hitting the road felt right.

And it was a trip that inspired this project?
In my roughest period, I decided to put my three kids in pajamas and drive to Niagara Falls in the middle of the night. We pulled into the hotel I’d reserved and my credit card didn’t go through. We’d lost our rooms overlooking the falls and wound up at a motel with a brick wall for a view. After a morning of calls with lawyers, I was feeling pretty bad. We got wet in the boat at the falls and I just wanted to go home. Then I saw my kids staring off at something. I walked over, stood behind them and saw the extraordinary view. I took a picture. I did that in 27 other places.

You spent your teens in Silver Spring. DC seems to feature as inspiration for the book.
I went to Northwood High School. I used to canoe the Potomac. Rock Creek Park, Harpers Ferry, there’s lots of Washington I love. I went looking for meaning by making a list of places. When Obama was elected, I started at the Lincoln Memorial and walked to the Capitol. There are a lot of layers to it. It’s what Lincoln represents, but also how Marian Anderson transformed the memorial and Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s a centerpiece for a lot of emotional tides.

You spend a lot of time on places that Lincoln’s legacy touched in some way.
I drove from Lincoln’s log cabin to his birthplace to the Springfield library in a snowstorm, but also Marian Anderson’s studio in Danbury, Conn., and (memorial sculptor) Daniel Chester French’s home. 

When you bucked the publisher and did the coffee table book anyway, what did you think would come of it?
I don’t see it as a coffee table book. It’s my notebook. I never thought about it being an exhibition. I’m sandwiching this in between my other work—full-time for Condé Nast and my children. I never thought the Smithsonian would travel the work. I did promise everywhere I shot that their photograph would hang in their museum, the Orchard House, the Concord Museum, the Freud Museum.

You’ve opened three exhibitions of your work in DC. Will this one be different?
What’s sweet about this is that the prints are modest and it’s in three small, beautiful, charming rooms in the American Art Museum. They’re just simple and I love them.