Imagine the pleasure of attending a conversation with Annie Leibovitz and Doris Kearns Goodwin, hosted at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House. Approximately 200 people had that pleasure, gathered in an array of tents on the lawn of the Alcott home.
Departure from the norm
What is unique about this book is its departure from Leibovitz’s usual portrait subjects. In Pilgrimage she photographed homes, rooms and objects that held special significance for certain important historical figures. Each room, each inanimate object tells a story, a story drawn forth with Leibovitz’s unique skill. In many cases, a new story is told.
Icons and “just folks”
Leibovitz and Goodwin shared entertaining, humorous and thoughtful anecdotes of their amazing careers. They were both very natural and unassuming. Leibovitz was not shy about revealing her lack of knowledge initially about some of the things she photographed for Pilgrimage. She was reflective and self-deprecating. Goodwin, a 37-year resident of Concord has a warmth and winning sense of humor that permeated all her stories. She has passed her love of history down to her children, most especially with her son, a popular teacher in the Concord Public Schools.
Here are some of the stories they shared:
- Goodwin admitted to feeling intimidated when she was asked to write the introduction to Pilgrimage. Explaining how photographs convey meaning differently from words, she wondered if she’d have anything worthwhile to add. Obviously, she did!
- Leibovitz experienced the same wonder and magic that so many Orchard House visitors express. She could feel the energy and the spirit of the Alcott family throughout the house
- Goodwin, in commenting on photos Leibovitz had taken of places and objects used by presidents she has written about (Lincoln, FDR), admitted to seeing nuances she had not seen before in these homes. Considering the fact that she spent, on average, ten years researching and writing the various books on these men, that is quite an extraordinary admission!
- Leibovitz looked for Lincoln’s log cabin but sadly, found that it didn’t exist. She had difficulty deciding which hat of Lincoln’s she would feature in the book as all were fascinating to her. The one she chose bears Lincoln’s fingerprints!
- Leibovitz shared a wonderful story about photographing Queen Elizabeth (that session was featured in the American Masters program about Leibovitz’s career). She thought the queen had a lot of spunk and was amazed to learn that she does her own hair and makeup. During the session, she actually suggested that the queen pose without her crown! The queen graciously agreed, though she eventually ended up putting the crown back on.
- In commenting about another very famous subject, Leibovitz quipped that Elvis never threw anything away, having “warehouses full of stuff.” And why did Elvis point a gun at his TV and shoot? Because Robert Goulet was on it!
Leibovitz admitted that “Pilgrimage required a different mindset.” Rather than plan in advance, she allowed the project to lead her along to its own conclusion (Goodwin noted that everything in the book is connected with one thing leading to another and then another). The project came at the right time in her life as Leibovitz was working through difficult personal and financial issues. She seemed reflective as she described looked for meaning in the past. The book helped her “save her work” by saving her creativity.
Mastering her craft
Leibovitz’s work on Pilgrimage helped her master digital photography, finding that it offered an enticing flexibility that traditional photography did not.
Reverence towards history
Turnquist commented that both Leibovitz and Goodwin show great respect towards their historical subjects which is not always done. They sought to get people to think, creating an empathetic connection to the person, the homes they lived in, and the objects they used.
After the conversation, the floor was opened to the audience for questions. I asked about the three dolls in the nursery of Orchard House, commenting that Lizzie’s doll in particular told me a lot about someone of whom we have precious few hard facts (she created the doll and May painted the face). Leibovitz lit up at the question, eager to share a story. She felt compelled to photograph the dolls together, for they seems as “little women,” never to be separated. The couch they were on was in great need of repair and restoration. She ended up restoring it (much to the delight of the Orchard House staff) with a black, horsehair fabric, and photographed the dolls in May’s room.
Magical. Truly magical. I was thrilled to have Leibovitz and Goodwin autograph my copy of Pilgrimage. I can hardly wait to go through it.
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