April 1, 2012

Q&A with Annie Leibovitz

Inside her 'Pilgrimage' to historic places

  • By: Gwendolyn Purdom

She’s known for her striking portraits of rock stars and world leaders, but photographer Annie Leibovitz turned her influential lens to 27 historic places—including two National Trust Historic Sites, Farnsworth House and Chesterwood—for her latest book, Pilgrimage.

Recently, Preservation spoke to Leibovitz about the experience.

Q: In your book it seems like your journey unfolded as it went along; what drew you to a place?

A: The first list had only about 12 places and people on it. One of them was the Lincoln Memorial, and I didn’t know why I was drawn to it—this is the nature of the project. I developed my understanding of the Lincoln Memorial, and I went on these crazy journeys, looking for Lincoln’s log cabin, then on the heritage road from his birthplace in Kentucky to his boyhood home in Indiana to Springfield, Ill., and that brought me to Marian Anderson, which brought me to Eleanor Roosevelt, which brought me to … it just went on and on and on that way.

Q: You mention in the book that your family has always loved historic places.

A: Always. When we were kids, we didn’t really have any money, so we took Sunday drives. My father was in the military, and as we moved from place to place, we drove. I’ve driven most of this country. My mother never passed a historical marker—we always stopped.

Q: What is it about being in these places that allows you to better understand who someone is?

A: Well, it stirs you up, it inspires you. It gets you thinking. One never stops learning. I’ve remained a student my whole life, soaking up whatever I can.

Q: Are there certain places you hope your children will be able to see?

A: You can drive anywhere in this country and there’s stuff to see. That’s why I was thinking of going down the Eastern Seaboard:That’s a great trip. They need to see the West. I love the West.

Q: Did you find the sites you visited to be well protected, in good shape?

A: Some of the smaller places could definitely use support, but then there are the places that are really well taken care of. Monticello is a stunning example of a community where people step in and the place thrives. But you see the whole gamut of places, especially since federal funds have been cut.

Q: Would you say you gained a new appreciation for historic places through this project?

A: Annie Oakley’s birthplace [in Darke County, Ohio] is a good example. The house isn’t there anymore, but you still get a great emotional sense of going down that road in the middle of the country and about how much harder life was. There’s something very beautiful about that. The house is no longer there but the place is. You know she was there, you know where she grew up, this is what made her.

Q: Do you have a favorite historic place?

A: I don’t. It’s all good to me.

Join the movement to save and sustain historic African American places. The African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund will help every American see themselves, their history, and their potential in our collective story and national cultural landscape.

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