"I can take any questions, just don't ask me who the fathers of my children are," a frank Annie Leibovitz tells a packed house at the Lensic during her recent visit to town.
The impetus behind the trip is to promote her latest venture, Pilgrimage—a traveling exhibition organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum—that currently calls the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum home.
Drifting temporarily from the portrait world, Leibovitz made a "crazy list" of 12 iconic sites—from Niagara Falls to Graceland—that intrigued her, and embarked on a roadtrip.
"You're good listeners," she tells the crowd, as she displays some of the show's images that depict objects like Sigmund Freud's couch, Annie Oakley's heart target and Virginia Woolf's writing table. "Woolf was very messy…art is messy," Leibovitz says.
The imagemaker also reminisced about her first camera (a Minolta SR-T 101); described the perils of shooting her own family's Christmas card; and shared her penchant for "Kumbaya-type music" while on the road for the exhibit.
"I'm actually an old folkie," she says. "I love Bob Dylan."
Leibovitz also shares her philosophy when going into a shoot: "I'm prepared as can be, then I walk in and pray that something happens."
Renewed and having survived a financial imbroglio that could have cost her the rights to all her previous work—from an au naturel John Lennon embracing Yoko Ono on the cover of Rolling Stone to a very pregnant Demi Moore on the cover of Vanity Fair and beyond—Leibovitz was as raw and naked as her famous subjects in front of the crowd.
The conversation veers off the shots displayed on an oversized screen; she blames her rambling on the altitude and a minor case of the sniffles. "I'm just really blabbering around here," she jokes.
"You've all been so good, I'll show you some new portraits," she says, as some shots of Lady Gaga pop up on the screen. "I had to throw in some trash," she quips. "Lady Gaga who?"
The following morning, Leibovitz led a private walkthrough of the exhibit.
"I can't believe I'm here, actually," says Leibovitz, standing in the O'Keeffe Museum's lobby, dressed all in black. She calls Alfred Stieglitz' shots of O'Keeffe "unparalleled" and refers to them as "the strongest portraits of all photographic time."
Leibovitz also says that when she got a chance to be inside O'Keeffe's former dwellings she was moved to tears.
"The problem with coming to Santa Fe is that you never want to leave," Leibovitz says. "I've always admired Agnes Martin…ugh, if I didn't have three small ones."
The tour underway, the photog continues, "O'Keeffe, to me, is the heart of this project." She's standing by a corner displaying Georgia-inspired shots, including one of the artist's handmade pastels and another of the entryway to her Ghost Ranch home.
"What gumption did I have, thinking I could photograph this?" she muses, staring at the piece.
Comprising 64 images printed on watercolor paper and taken between April 2009 and May 2011, Pilgrimage holds the distinction of being shot exclusively in digital.
"I'm learning, like everyone else," Leibovitz says of the format. "You're still doing the work that Ansel did in the darkroom when you're sitting in front of the computer," she points out, adding that too much Photoshop makes images look "cheap."
"More the merrier is not the right thing," she tells SFR when asked if the term "photographer" has become degraded in the Instagram age.
"It's really like your iPhone is more of a pen now, and you make notes," she says, adding that though the technology is "convenient and acceptable," she knows many photographers who just keep on snapping and never show the outcome. "They're brilliant, great photographers who don't know how to present their work.
There's a lot to it in that, still."
"To me," Leibovitz continues, "my work is in my books 1970-1990 [and] 1990-2005, which is A Photographer's Life. I learned very early on to go look back at my work and to edit my work."
Making her way through the museum's halls, she calls Pilgrimage "a notebook…just thoughts and ideas" that is both "eclectic and strange," and says she went against the grain in completing the exhibit, as people around her questioned the show's cogency.
"You have to feed your heart and your soul," she says.
She stops in front of a photo of Henry David Thoreau's rattan-lined bed. "These are not photographs," she continues. "They are [the] documenting of objects that I just fell in love with."
Leibovitz says she felt drained form her 40-plus-year run in the magazine world. "There's an agenda in all these magazines, because they're all going down the tubes."
Pilgrimage, Leibovitz explains, is her "opportunity to get out without any other agenda than taking a picture," and recharge her creative battery. "I didn't know what I had left in me anymore," she sighs.
The secret to her picture-perfect success? "Not longing to please anyone."
On that note, and being that she's no stranger to controversy, I pull out a back copy of the Reporter—our much hullaballooed "Love & Sex" issue, to be exact—and ask for Leibovitz' professional take on our Barbie-centric images.
"I don't have any opinion—they look fine," she says and pauses for a moment. Studying them closely, she suggests that, next time, we take it even further.
"I've seen worse things done with Barbie dolls," Leibovitz says with a laugh.
Georgia O'Keeffe Museum
217 Johnson St., 946-1000
Through May 5