COLUMBIA, SC — For two years, Annie Leibovitz, the great portrait photographer, took pictures with no people in them.
The result is an exhibition of photos, opening Friday at the Columbia Museum of Art, that nevertheless reveals the lives of famous people.
Most are photographs of artifacts or places associated with two dozen writers, artists and other American visionaries. Only one is still living. Many worked at the end of the 19th century, when social norms were changing and new discoveries were revered.
It was a history lesson for me, Leibovitz said of the personal project, sandwiched between assignments for Vogue and Vanity Fair.
I was enamored with all these lives, and I went looking to find them, how they lived and how they died.
The 78 photographs are collected as Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage.
To hear her tell it, it was more like wanderlust.
Its really an American story about small details in our country, she told a group of about 45 photographers and reporters before leading a tour through the art gallery Thursday.
I was just asked if John Lennon was in it. Its not that.
From April 2009 to May 2011, Leibovitz visited house museums across the country (and, in a couple of cases, abroad), developing relationships with curators and family members to gain access to personal items, papers and clothing.
She calls the images she made notes, studies or riffs, and had no real explanation how she chose her subjects.
Initially, she had a list of a dozen people who intrigued her.
Sometimes, one life connected with another.
The list grew.
Exploring the story of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, for example, she discovered that Roosevelt arranged for Marian Anderson to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The 1939 performance broke racial barriers for the classically trained artist.
Roosevelt, Anderson and Lincoln each became a focus in her project.
So did Annie Oakley, Henry David Thoreau and Ansel Adams.
She photographed the bodice of Emily Dickinsons white dress, with its buttons and lace.
Elvis Presleys record-player.
A box of Georgia OKeefes handmade pastels.
Leibovitz, who just turned 64, said she grew up in a family of history buffs who traveled the country by car.
Her age and a desperation to find meaning fueled the project, she said.
Theres a hunger for information in it. Dare I say its fun?
The project also had a little Susan Sontag in it, because Dickinson was her favorite poet. Before Sontags death in 2004, the two had planned to travel and publish a book of places together.
The first photograph in the collection was taken at Niagara Falls, where her young children were mesmerized by the rushing water.
I walked over and stood right behind them, she said. They showed me this picture. Its what our children do; they show you things.
Later in the gallery talk, Leibovitz said she was reading Louisa May Alcott to her 11-year old.
Im probably the last person in the world to read Little Women, she said. I cant get through a chapter without sobbing. Its so beautiful.
The section on the Alcott family includes a photograph of the sun-drenched desk where the author wrote, a rag doll made by her sister Beth and a drawing on the wall by May.
In 40 years of photography work, including with Rolling Stone magazine, Leibovitz stood back from her subjects. And while she always noticed small personal objects, she said, I didnt allow myself to take those pictures because there werent people in them.
The pilgrimage allowed her to break away and revive her talent.
Shes incorporating the new approach into her current work, a project on artists in their studios.
The show is a little about redemption, she said, and searching and finding yourself.
If you go
What: "Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage"
When: Friday through Jan. 5, 2014
Where: Columbia Museum of Art, 1515 Main St., at Hampton Street
Hours: Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.
Cost: Free for members and children 5 and younger; general admission is $12 or less; free on Sundays
Other details: www.columbiamuseum.org or (803) 799-2810
Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.