And, inspired by the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, she traveled to Gettysburg, following the same route that Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner took on horseback 150 years ago to document the battle's aftermath.
A selection of her work, 78 images in all, has been made part of a Smithsonian American History Museum traveling exhibition that opens Thursday at the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitors Center.
"It's not my normal work," said Leibovitz, who just finished shooting Rihanna and Anne Hathaway for separate Vogue covers. "It's the notetaking; it's what's in the peripheral vision."
Self-effacing and affable, dressed in jeans and hiking boots, Leibovitz perched on a desk in a conference room at the museum Wednesday to chat with reporters rather than take the lectern.
"It was a difficult time in my life I didn't know which way was up or down," she said of that dark period three years ago. "I wanted to see what was inside of me."
Her three young daughters, Sarah, now 11, and twins Susan and Samuelle, now 7, provided the inspiration on a trip to Niagara Falls.
Leibovitz refers to the period in early 2009 as her "financial moment," when she owed the banks $15 million and had to put the rights to all of her work up as collateral. (She has since regained those rights).
"I was on the front page of the New York Times," she said.
As her children leaned over a guardrail watching the water plunge over the falls, Leibovitz recalled that they were unusually mesmerized.
"It was a hard time, you look at it and think, should you jump?" she said with a laugh.
Standing by the sea-green image of the falls in the museum gallery, she described how she snapped a picture from their vantage point and her journey was launched.
"It's the picture they took, that they showed me," she said.
Leibovitz traveled to England to document the Virginia Woolf home, where she zoomed in on the author's wooden writing desk, with the marks of its owner: the doodles of a sailboat and cigarette burns.
"I was surprised at how scarred it was and then research later found out she was messy, squalid actually," she said.
Leibovitz went to Yosemite Valley to pay homage to the great photographer Ansel Adams, shooting contemporary views of the unchanged landscape that he and naturalist John Muir first brought to the world's attention. And she captured an image of Adams' darkroom in Carmel, Calif.
The people are gone from these places, but their essence remains, turned into still lifes by Leibovitz: a sweat-stained concert gown worn by Marian Anderson, the television set owned by Elvis Presley with the bullet hole in it, or the starched white sheet on the perfectly made bed of Georgia O'Keefe, a tiny tear barely visible.
"I think of myself on the road," said Leibovitz, whose career was launched with Rolling Stone while she was still a student at the San Francisco Art Institute.
She turned to Gettysburg as a place of pilgrimage, a destination she remembers from her childhood, the field trips with her mother and five siblings, buying "buckets of bullets" at the souvenir store.
When Leibovitz returned in more recent years, she tried to find a store selling buckets of bullets again and then thought twice about it: "I don't want my children having bullets," she said, laughing.
Her images are so rich in detail they have a tactile quality; here is Georgia O'Keefe's box of pastels or the caning of the wicker daybed where Henry David Thoreau napped, the smooth boulders at Gettysburg's Devil's Den where photographer Alexander Gardner, sometime after the battle ended, dragged a dead soldier's body 75 feet in order to use the rock formation as a backdrop.
Leibovitz took another Gettysburg image several miles to the east at Cavalry Field on the farmstead that still stands and once marked the Union line on July 3, 1863, the third day of the epic battle.
It was a moment out of National Geographic, she said, the old farmhouse with the wash on the line and the fire-red tree beside it.
"Visually, you can see that life goes on," she said.
Leibovitz finds the battlefield an inspiration and the Civil War more relevant today than ever.
"It was the high water mark of trying to understand ourselves," she said. "Today, you can come here and walk these fields and come to terms with who we are and what we've become."
And with that Leibovitz signed copies of her book before heading out onto the battlefield, resplendent in its autumn glory.
For video of Annie Leibowitz and her new exhibition at Gettysburg, go to www.philly.com/annie.
Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage
Thursday through Jan. 20 at the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitors Center.
Museum admission: $12.50 adults, $11.50 seniors (65+) and active military (with proper ID), $8.50 children ages 6-12.
Hours: Daily, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day.
Contact Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @inkyamy.