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For decades, Annie Leibovitz’s glitzy superstar portraits have splashed across magazine covers and defined the genre of celebrity portraiture. With an eye for the shocking contrast, she has concocted instant icons: a naked John Lennon curled up beside fully clothed Yoko; Whoopi Goldberg splashing in a bath of milk; Meryl Streep tugging savagely at her whitened face as if trying to peel off a Meryl Streep mask. Leibovitz is a choreographer of pop celebrity. Is there such a thing as a persona she can’t sell?

Her latest work, assembled into a small, glowing show at the New-York Historical Society, is a gratifying surprise. Pilgrimage finds her on the trail of a more elusive set of celebrities — dead ones — and in a more pensive, becalmed mode. Since she can’t book Elvis Presley or Annie Oakley for a photo shoot, she settles for their material traces: the clothes, homes and appurtenances that armoured them against the world.

If the resulting still lives and interiors are not nearly as slick as her portraits of fame, they are often more eloquent. A muted light diffuses through a cluttered room or lingers on a pair of old boots. Without a face to focus the viewer’s attention, or the graphic boldness that made Leibovitz nearly as famous as her subjects, these photographs quiver with subtext and hidden connections.

Leibovitz took on this project, she has said, as a way “to save my soul”. A single mother of three, she has coped with a string of misfortunes over the past decade. In 2004, she lost her long-time companion Susan Sontag, and both her parents died soon after. She accumulated mountains of debt and a wave of lawsuits. Pilgrimage claws towards a kind of redemption. It’s a reliquary for secular saints (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Abraham Lincoln, Sigmund Freud) and an unacknowledged tribute to a distinguished lineage of bisexual women (Georgia O’Keeffe, Eleanor Roosevelt, Virginia Woolf).

Absent people infuse her images. A golden, sweat-drenched gown belonging to the great black contralto Marian Anderson spreads like an altarpiece across half a dozen panels. The white gloves that Abraham Lincoln had in his pockets when he died hover like two ghostly hands. Emily Dickinson’s white dress is a proxy for the poet herself.

Pilgrimage carried Leibovitz on a journey across the US and England, and wound up confirming something she already believed: that possessions become imbued with their possessor’s spirit. The hats, TV sets, sofas and stuffed animals of the dead form a legible residue — history’s fingerprints.

The warehouse at the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, New York (2010);

Despite the reverential tone, a love of gossip links the show’s subjects in a web of personal connections. We are reminded, for example, that the photographic pioneer Julia Margaret Cameron was Tennyson’s close friend and neighbour on the Isle of Wight. That her niece and favourite model, Julia Jackson, was the mother of Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf. And that Woolf and her husband Leonard ran the Hogarth Press, which published Freud in English.

In case you have trouble following those degrees of separation, Leibovitz provides a kind of photographic guide. We see Cameron’s lens, the private gate that Tennyson used to sneak past fans into her garden, the bower where Jackson posed, Bell’s charmingly shabby wallpaper, Woolf’s ink-stained desk and Freud’s rug-covered couch.

These free-associative byways suit Leibovitz, who has no interest in articulating her methods or motives. “One of the hardest parts of my work as a photographer is explaining what I’m doing while I’m doing it . . . My brain doesn’t work like that.”

History is not a natural habitat for a photographer who has spent her life capturing phenomenal people in the luminous vacuum of their prime. And yet here she uses the camera to trace historical narratives and connections — some obvious, others obscure.

Elvis Presley’s television set, with bullet-hole made by him, at Graceland (2011)

In 1939, after the Daughters of the Revolution refused to let Marian Anderson perform in their concert hall, Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for her to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for a crowd of 75,000. Leibovitz follows that event upstream to Val-Kill, Roosevelt’s private cottage on Franklin D Roosevelt’s Hyde Park estate, and to the top hat that Lincoln was wearing when he was shot.

She follows other tributaries, too, travelling to Gettysburg and shooting the same rocky outcrop where a battlefield photographer positioned a soldier’s body for dramatic effect. She visits the Massachusetts home of sculptor Daniel Chester French, where she photographs the eerily lifelike hands he fashioned as studies for the Lincoln Memorial.

You don’t get the feeling that this journey tells any particular story. She’s just doing the physical equivalent of clicking through links and seeing where they take her. Yet each shot maintains a meditative, mournful mood. The hat, the rocks, the sculpted hands: each is a stand-in for an actor who has left the stage.

Emily Dickinson’s dress (2010)

Although her portrait work has gone global, Leibovitz is in essence the entertainment world’s village photographer: it’s safe to guess that most of her subjects know each other. For a while in the mid-19th century, the small town of Concord, Massachusetts, was a kind of highbrow Hollywood, where America’s celebrated cultural figures walked to each other’s homes for dinner. So that’s where Leibovitz goes. Pilgrimage includes intimate pictures of the Alcott sisters’ homemade dolls, Emerson’s desk drawer and Thoreau’s bed, a fantastically plain monument to a complicated advocate of the simple life. Woven cane, stretched across a wooden frame, becomes a vibrating field of texture and emotion.

Thoreau’s ascetic bed, Freud’s sumptuous couch, Emily Dickinson’s virginal dress, even the threesome of peas nestled in a cosy pod at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello garden — so many items in this suggestive show whisper slyly of sex. Leibovitz is the chronicler of an exhibitionistic age, but here she seems intrigued by the 19th century’s erotic currents bubbling beneath the public crust.

And perhaps that’s the soul-saving aspect of this project for her: she has discovered the richness of reticence.

Until February 22, nyhistory.org

Photographs: Annie Leibovitz

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