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Modern Reliquaries 

click to enlarge Skeleton of a pigeon studied by Charles Darwin, Natural History Museum at Tring, Hertfordshire, England, 2010.
  • Skeleton of a pigeon studied by Charles Darwin, Natural History Museum at Tring, Hertfordshire, England, 2010.
When a life partner is wrenched from this world, the survivor begins a communion with existence on another level. The deceased is seen in possessions left behind, their presence tangible in a favorite chair or even in an empty room. The corporeal, for the bereaved, now shares space with the evanescent. The result is not a morose view of this plane but a more expansive one in which we acknowledge the vibrations that linger after a life of consequence.

Photographer Annie Leibovitz lost her life partner, the essayist, feminist, and intellectual Susan Sontag, to leukemia in 2004. Her new book Pilgrimage (Random House, 2011, $50), which contains photographs of the homes, possessions, and worlds of great artists and thinkers, is more than a visually eloquent exploration of her personal grief; the book is a celebration of the ways in which people survive beyond death and continue to nurture the living.

A discussion of Pilgrimage, led by the author, will take place on January 7 at 4pm at Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck. Admission is free but reservations are required—a reminder of the astounding popularity of the photographer, whose fame has nearly equaled that of her subjects.

Pilgrimage, which Leibovitz calls “an exercise in renewal,” was originally conceived by she and Sontag as a travelogue to the couple’s favorite places. Embarking on the journey without her mate, the photographer (and Dutchess County resident) has created an elegy for some of the most accomplished people of the 19th and 20th centuries: From statesmen Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt to men of science Sigmund Freud and Charles Darwin; from women of letters Emily Dickinson, Louisa May Alcott and Virginia Woolf to maverick performers Martha Graham, Elvis Presley, Marian Anderson and Annie Oakley. But here, the woman who brashly reconfigured the iconography of celebrity in her portraits for Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and Vogue, concentrates instead on what remains after these personalities passed from this world. (The only living person represented is Pete Seeger via his cabin, vegetable garden, and chaotic workshop in Cold Spring.)

Thus we find ourselves pondering Woolf’s ink-stained writing desk, the leather gloves Lincoln wore on his night out to Ford’s Theater, Anderson’s concert gown, Freud’s couch, and a RCA Victor TV with a bullet hole courtesy of The King. The images are exquisitely photographed, natural lighting allowing the mute totems to sing. Landscapes are recorded with such startling depth of field that they resemble paintings. These are reliquaries of modern saints and Leibovitz prods us to glean their significance.
The text of Pilgrimage is the distillation of Leibovitz’s impressions of places she visited and the emotions that were stirred. (These random observations were ordered and augmented with historical fact by editor Sharon DeLano.) We are treated to a history of photography, meditations on the cult of celebrity and a look at the people who maintain museums and archives—often manipulating mythology to draw the faithful. On this latter point, the author is genial and respectful; for a snarkier exploration of this world, savor slacker-historian Sarah Vowell’s delightful Assassination Vacation.

Notoriously guarded for years, Leibovitz allows a small peephole into her own life here, divulging emotions as well as mentioning her three children who share the journey. She even refers, albeit briefly, to the mammoth fiscal troubles that have earned her unwelcome news coverage in recent years. The random nature of the author’s peregrinations is engaging; the random order of the text—Lincoln’s dying moments are interrupted by photos of Elvis’s childhood cabin—can be vexing.

Ultimately, Pilgrimage is about healing. “Looking at history,” Leibovitz writes, “provided a way of going forward.”
A discussion of Pilgrimage by Annie Leibovitz will be held on Saturday, January 7, at 4pm at Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck. For reservations, call (845) 876-0500 or write rsvp@oblongbooks.com.

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