My Week with God – Annie Leibovitz and Mary Oliver

Walking through the Annie Leibovitz exhibit at the Wexner was like reading a novel or a short story.  The images built and built, and there was a sense that they were leading to something, some high point which would pull all of the images together and make their meaning coherent.  It was a rainy afternoon, but the light inside the galleries was clear and bright.  I went up narrow interior stairways, around corners, through open hallways, all of which grew the sense of moving through a labyrinth – the sense that there was a center, and I only had to get there.

I came around a corner and found four black and white images, all in a row.  Plain, awkward looking women.  They stood out, because the last few galleries had been full of intense color.  Ella Fitzgerald in a red hat and dress, standing against the green and silver leaves of a rose bush, ferns of a more consistent green pulling the viewer’s eye to the grass at her feet.  Mohammed Ali reclining against the red sweep of a staircase.  Leibovitz is a genius at placing colors in startling, lovely contrast.  All of that, and then the four plain women, in black and white.

I studied them.  They looked tranquil, thoughtful, kind.  And then I turned to the other wall.  Four large portraits of Las Vegas showgirls.  Breasts and feathers everywhere.  Teased hair, heavy mascara, blush and sequins.  Four women, in order.  I studied the caption cards on the walls beside them.  After a moment, I realized that they were the same four women from the black and white photographs. But how could that be?  They didn’t look the same.  One set of photographs showed quietness, relaxed humanity, faces drawn inward and almost indifferent to beauty.  The other set showed wild exuberance, a nearly manic showiness, faces posed for display in a carnival.  They seemed like different women, but were the same, and as I looked back and forth at the two sets of portraits, I couldn’t decide which set expressed the greater reality.

I’ve been reading Mary Oliver’s House of Light, and have stopped to read this poem again and again:


I have been thinking
about living
like the lilies
that blow in the fields.

They rise and fall
in the wedge of the wind,
and have no shelter
from the tongues of the cattle,

and have no closets or cupboards,
and have no legs.
Still I would like to be
as wonderful

as that old idea.
But if I were a lily
I think I would wait all day
for the green face

of the hummingbird
to touch me.
What I mean is,
could I forget myself

even in those feathery fields?
When van Gogh
preached to the poor
of course he wanted to save someone—

most of all himself.
He wasn’t a lily,
and wandering through the bright fields
only gave him more ideas

it would take his life to solve.
I think I will always be lonely
in this world, where the cattle
graze like a black and white river—

where the ravishing lilies
melt, without protest, on their tongues—
where the hummingbird, whenever there is a fuss,
just rises and floats away.

Perhaps the plain, black and white portraits are the lilies, simple in their bright fields.  But I think I’m wrong to call those portraits human, and not describe the garish show girls as human as well.  After all, can our humanity stand plainness?  Don’t we long for the green, bright face of the hummingbird?  I, like Mary Oliver, have often wanted to just be.  To set aside human complexity and complication, and become like the lily, or the deer that longs for the water brooks.  But to do so would be to pretend that I’m something other than I am.  Human, complex, and sometimes garish, wild, and showy.  Yet I feel Oliver’s loneliness as well.  We can never rest like a lily without longing for something more, and we can never stretch ourselves towards that something more without longing for the lily’s rest.

I wandered away from the two sets of portraits, thinking these thoughts, but the exhibit wasn’t finished with me yet.  The story it was telling me hadn’t reached its climax.  On the top floor, in the second to last gallery, there was a display of pictures from Leibovitz’s recent pilgrimage.  She traveled across the country taking pictures without any people in them, trying to reclaim her art for herself, without worrying about financial or commercial interests.  The pictures were arranged like paintings in a 19th century exhibit, many images clustered together on three walls, at different heights and with very little space between them.  On the third wall there was a photograph of two lima bean pods, both open, their sides like wings of a moth.  I stopped before it, transfixed.  The beans nestled against gray, webbed plant fiber, pale against the green.  The fiber was dense and clumped, like old plaster or crusted salt.  The pods sat on red, pebbled dirt.  They were so simple, and so complex.

Nature is simple and complex.  Both our nature, and the nature of the lily.  That is why we want to be like lilies of the fields.  Not because they’re different then us, but because they remind us of ourselves.  Like us, they are both plain and elaborate, webbed with cells of tremendous complexity, composed of varied colors.  Yet they seem free within themselves, within their complexity, free to be two things at once, rooted and sparse, caught in a wedge of wind, always wild with change.  Perhaps this is what Christ meant.  Consider the lilies of the fields.  Consider yourselves.

One thought on “My Week with God – Annie Leibovitz and Mary Oliver

  1. You express this tension between longing for more and longing for rest so well here. There is always, or so it seems with me, longing.

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