The opening photograph in Annie Leibovitz’s latest bookPilgrimage – opposite the dedication to her three young daughters – is of the original manuscript of the Robert Frost poem that ends: “And miles to go before I sleep.” Sitting in the attic studio of Charleston in Sussex, once the bolthole of the Bloomsbury group, the 62-year-old photographer smiles ruefully as she reflects on this. She arrived in the UK this morning on the red-eye from New York and her return flight is just a few hours from now. “I’m extremely responsible to my children,” she says, “but it’s relentless at my age. I don’t know if I was thinking properly when I booked it.”
Leibovitz is here to speak at the Charleston festival and it’s obvious she has a strong affinity with this bucolic retreat. She first came here in 1997 to use the house as a backdrop for a portrait of Nicole Kidman and then again to photograph Vanessa Redgrave. She returned in 2010, but this time the cluttered rooms were to be the focus of her pictures.
In fact, Pilgrimage features no human beings at all – quite a turnaround for a woman who has defined portrait photography in the modern age with her work forRolling Stone, Vogue and Vanity Fair. Other “subjects” in the book include Virginia Woolf’s desk, Sigmund Freud’s patient’s couch and Abraham Lincoln’s top hat and the blood-stained white kid gloves that were in his pocket when he was assassinated.
“It was great to be in rooms without people, like a meditation of sorts,” she says. “I think of the great society portrait painter Wright of Derby who at the end of his life finished up painting cow pastures because he’d just had it with people. I do think we all head there.”
Her children were one inspiration for Pilgrimage; another was the death of her partner Susan Sontag in 2004, with whom she first discussed compiling a book about the places they yearned to visit. The push, however, was the financial troubles that almost led her to declare bankruptcy in 2009. Her life became one of endless conference calls with lawyers and her creativity flagged. “Creativity needs to be taken care of,” she says. “It’s like a big baby that needs to be nourished. I went into this project to fill myself back up. But it was important to me that the book felt ‘up’ – it’s not haunted, it’s not dark,” she continues. “It really was life-affirming to me.”
Tim Lewis, The Guardian