DARKE COUNTY - Back in 2011, one of the most well-renowned contemporary photographers paid a very special visit to Darke County’s Garst Museum, in an effort to get to know it’s most famous native.
That photographer was Annie Leibovitz, an American portrait photographer, and her goal was to capture Annie Oakley’s unique history and personality through some of her most iconic items and locales.
Famed photographer Annie Leibovitz began her career as a photojournalist for Rolling Stone in 1970 while still a student at the San Francisco Art Institute. Her pictures have appeared regularly on magazine covers, art collections and in museums ever since.
As part of her a recent photo exhibit taken between April 2009 and May 2011, Leibovitz went on a personal journey around the world to take photos of objects related to iconic figures, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, Pete Seeger and Elvis Presley and at places such as Niagara Falls, Gettysburg and the Yosemite Valley.
And because her project featured larger than life characters, it was only natural of her to choose Darke County and Annie Oakley for her exhibit.
The exhibition was completed in January of 2012, features 78 photographs, and was ultimately titled Pilgrimage to reflect the personal journey throughout her time building the project. Unlike her staged and carefully lit portraits made on assignment Leibovitz was able to take these specific photographs because of her interest and investment in the subject.
The exhibition is also presented in conjunction with a recent book by Annie Leibovitz, published under the same name by Random House.
It was an honor for the Garst Museum to host such an accomplished photographer, and many of its members were excited to host such an important guest.
However the staff was asked to keep the project under wraps for fear of leaking the exhibit before its completion, making the announcement only come to light lately.
At first, many of the staff were concerned that Leibovitz would demand a lot of attention, but according to Garst Museum Director Dr. Clay Johnson, Leibovitz was extremely easy to work with, cheerful, and even allowed them to view her at work.
“It was such an amazing experience to be able to share Annie Oakley’s story in that way,” said Dr. Johnson.
Leibovitz only stayed for a day, but in that time she made a lasting impression on the folks of Darke County and Garst Museum, as she shared a modest lunch with local residents and spoke about her work earnestly.
And in just a short period, she managed to take some of the most iconic Annie Oakley photos in recent history.
Specifically, her photos included a pair of riding boots made for Oakley, a large chest with her name imprinted on the exterior, and a ceremonial horsehair ornament.
But perhaps Leibovitz’s greatest Oakley photo occurred after she decided to stay longer than anticipated in order to drive north to Oakley’s grave site.
On her way out, Leibovitz took a photo of a snow-covered lonely road in mid-January, which seemed to represent the region’s hardness and the surroundings that made Oakley who she was.
Leibovitz even mentioned Darke County specifically during an interview with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She claimed that the area helped her to gain a new appreciation for historic places.
“Annie Oakley’s birthplace [in Darke County, Ohio] is a good example. The house isn’t there anymore, but you still get a great emotional sense of going down that road in the middle of the country and about how much harder life was,” she said. “There’s something very beautiful about that. The house is no longer there, but the place is. You know she was there, you know where she grew up, this is what made her.”
So while Leibovitz only spent a short time in Darke County, she helped to keep Darke County native Annie Oakley and the Garst Museum on forefront of contemporary photography for years to come.