Annie Leibovitz, 2009 by John Keatley
“What is a photographer’s life? It’s just a life, looking through a lens.”
Anna-Lou ‘Annie’ Leibovitz was born in Conneticut USA in 1949. Her mother was a dancer and her father was in the Air Force, and she spent much of her early life moving around with her parents and her 5 siblings. She took her first photos whilst her father was stationed in the Philippines during the Vietnam War, and upon returning to the USA in 1967 she studied painting in the San Francisco Art Institute in the hope of becoming an art teacher. But after taking a photography workshop the following summer, her career took a different route and she joined Rolling Stone Magazine as their photographer. Over her long and varied career she has been on tour with the Rolling Stones, taken the last photograph of John Lennon before he was murdered, worked for Vanity Fair and Vogue – taking the now iconic image of a pregnant Demi Moore, documented the troubles in Sarajevo in 1993 and become as, if not more, famous than most of the celebrities she has photographed. Despite working on a large scale and being known for being demanding, she remains a very down-to-earth and family orientated individual who has been deeply influenced by the loss of her father Sam and partner Susan Sontag.
“When you’re raised in a car, it’s easy to become an artist because you saw the world through a ready-made picture frame.”
‘Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens’ is a documentary of Annie’s life and work directed by her sister, Barbara Leibovitz, in 2006. After watching this on DVD in college, I was posed with a series of questions in order to reflect on her work.
“Really good photographers can’t stop taking pictures. They do it like other people eat and breathe. Her whole life is her subject.”
1. What were her two main influences from her photo education?
In the 1960s education at the School of Photography at the San Francisco Art Institute was based on two main photographers; Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Robert Frank was “the father of 35mm photography in the United States, and Cartier-Bresson was the same for Europe… they were considered to be the first photographers who took photography the way it had never been done before.” Annie also states that they made photography “portable… relaxed… fluid” and that was how she learned to take pictures. “It was personalised, reportage work”. She recollects sitting with the book ‘The World of Cartier-Bresson’ which made her realise “what it meant to be a photographer”. Annie says she looked through the book and realised she could travel the world, and that “the camera gave you this license to walk out and be alone in the world but you were there with a purpose. It was a very important discovery.”
Parade, Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955 by Robert Frank
Sunday on the Banks of the River Marne, 1938 by Henri Cartier-Bresson
2. Leibovitz has worked within a number of different areas of photography. Identify and discuss the different areas she has worked in.
When Annie first began working for Rolling Stone magazine she had little direction or education in photography. She “showed up one day with a bag of pictures” and she and the magazine “grew up together”. Her work was documentary in style and she was present at a pivotal time in American history to bear witness to huge changes in politics and music. In 1973 she was named Chief Photographer of the magazine, a position she held for 10 years.
In it’s early years Rolling Stone was not the music magazine we know today. As the writer David Felton says in the documentary, they “worked for what we believed in, we were the only paper that described what was going on, and there was a lot going on back then.” As such, many of Annie’s assignments were not music orientated but of current affairs. She photographed astronauts and campaign trails, and in the wake of the Watergate Scandal she was one of the last photographers allowed in the White House to photograph Richard Nixon leaving after his resignation.
Richard Nixon leaving the White House, 1974 by Annie Leibovitz
Annie continued her documentary style in her music assignments. She was a big music fan and very determined to work with the musicians she loved. When she discovered that John Lennon and Yoko Ono were going to be interviewed, she begged to be allowed to join and despite admitting she didn’t know how to direct people, she not only captured the spirit of the couple but took an iconic portrait of John Lennon which was used as the cover of the next issue.
Rolling Stone cover featuring John Lennon, 1971 by Annie Leibovitz
In 1975, against the advice of Jan Wenner, the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Rolling Stone, Annie went on tour with the Rolling Stones. She integrated herself with the group, taking part in their drug-fuelled Rock ‘n’ Roll lifestyle and becoming fast friends. Their intimacy allowed her to take candid photographs behind the scenes. Instead of finding her intrusive, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger both felt that she was “part of the gang” and it became normal for her to be constantly taking photographs. One example of this is when Mick Jagger cut his hand by falling onto a glass door, and Annie was with him in the hospital taking photos of him getting stitches. She also took photos of their performances from the pit or backstage, the likes of which had never before been seen.
“In order to get the best possible pictures, one had to become part of what was going on.”
The Rolling Stones, 1975 by Annie Leibovitz
In 1978 Rolling Stone magazine moved to New York, and Annie with it. She met Bea Feitler, a designer and art director, who took Annie under her wing and helped drive her to achieve her ideas through honest and constructive criticism. Annie’s work became bolder and more colourful, such as her image of Bette Midler for Rolling Stone in a bed of roses – over a thousand were used and Annie cut the thorns off every single one.
Rolling Stone cover featuring Bette Midler, 1979 by Annie Leibovitz
On December 8th 1980, Annie had a shoot with John Lennon. Originally it was only meant to be John in the photograph, but he insisted that Yoko Ono be in it as well. Annie wanted to recreate an intimate nude portrait of the pair, inspired by their album cover for ‘Double Fantasy’. She recalls, “What is interesting is she said she’d take her top off and I said, ‘Leave everything on’ — not really preconceiving the picture at all. Then he curled up next to her and it was very, very strong. You couldn’t help but feel that he was cold and he looked like he was clinging on to her. I think it was amazing to look at the first Polaroid and they were both very excited. John said, ‘You’ve captured our relationship exactly. Promise me it’ll be on the cover.’ I looked him in the eye and we shook on it.”
Annie Leibovitz was the last person to professionally photograph John Lennon. He was shot and murdered only 5 hours later. The resulting cover for Rolling Stone magazine had no headline, as none was needed. The image exploded across international media and became iconic, not only capturing the beauty of John and Yoko’s relationship, but also catapulting Annie to fame. It was a landmark on her path to becoming a celebrity portrait photographer.
Rolling Stone cover featuring John Lennon and Yoko Ono, 1981 by Annie Leibovitz
Annie’s fame and growth as a photographer led to an offer of work from Vanity Fair, and she left Rolling Stone in 1983 after Jann Wenner spoke to her about her drug use and recklessness – he told her to “get better and move on”. She went to a rehab facility and was “cured forever”. Annie recalls, “It was like growing up. I needed to understand what I could do and who I was.” Vanity Fair was a fairly new magazine and had a lot of competition from better established publishings such as Vogue. However, once Annie Leibovitz was their photographer things changed for the magazine and she made her name as a demanding, expensive perfectionist. Photographing celebrities such as Whoopi Goldberg and Demi Moore, her images became much larger in scale and more conceptual.
When she photographed Whoopi Goldberg, Annie said that she wanted to put her in a tub of milk to show her “emerging from what was – which was all white”.
Vanity Fair article featuring Whoopi Goldberg, 1984 by Annie Leibovitz
Her image of a nude, heavily pregnant Demi Moore remains famous to this day, and the controversy and debate it caused only served to almost double the readers of Vanity Fair and increase public awareness of Annie Leibovitz.
Vanity Fair cover featuring Demi Moore, 1991 by Annie Leibovitz
In 1993, influenced by her partner Susan Sontag, Annie took a break from the demands of celebrity photography and documented the Bosnian War for Independence in Sarajevo. It took Annie back to the roots of her photography, and she was faced with the horrors of war and death. She said that it was a “levelling experience – put some of the work I do back into the correct perspective”. At this time Annie also took pictures in Rwanda in the aftermath of the genocide of the Tutsi.
“It’s been the bane of my existence… becoming so famous, that the focus is on that rather than on taking good pictures.”
Fallen bicycle of teenage boy killed by sniper, Sarajevo, 1994 by Annie Leibovitz
Annie returned home with a fresh perspective and continues to photograph celebrities for Vanity Fair and other publications to this day. Her conceptual style grew into something epic and what the celebrities were wearing became almost as important as the celebrities themselves. This led to Annie branching from simple portraiture to fashion. Vogue commissions her to undertake large-scale projects featuring a celebrity, tying in with the main interview or fashion editorial of that issue. These series are often quite fantastical in nature, following a piece of well-known fiction, such as Drew Barrymore as Beauty from Beauty and the Beast.
Vogue editorial featuring Drew Barrymore, 2005 by Annie Leibovitz
Firmly in place as a famed celebrity photographer, Annie also shoots advertising campaigns. Still working with celebrities, she has produced work for high-end fashion houses such as Bulgari and Louis Vuitton.
Louis Vuitton advertisement featuring Angelina Jolie, 2011 by Annie Leibovitz
Finally, throughout her career as a photojournalist, documentary, celebrity portrait and fashion photographer, Annie has taken candid and intimate pictures of her family, friends and home. Annie met Susan Sontag in 1989 and the pair quickly became close. They never clarified or discussed their relationship, lived together or married. However they always lived within walking distance of one another, and after Susan’s death in 2004 Annie has clarified that they were lovers. In her book, ‘A Photographer’s Life’ Annie states, “Words like ‘companion’ and ‘partner’ were not in our vocabulary… We were two people who helped each other through our lives. The closest word is still ‘friend’.” Rather than flinch from the harsh reality of Susan’s illness and death, Annie photographed it.
“In the wake of actual loss it’s so comforting to take pictures.”
Susan Sontag by Annie Leibovitz
3. What do you notice about her commissioned work in relation to her personal work?
It seems that Annie Leibovitz’s original, instinctive approach to photography is more candid and documentary in style, whereas overtime her commissioned work has grown to be much more directed, fantastical and posed.
At the start of her career when she was still finding herself as a photographer, Annie photographed her professional assignments without much planning or forethought, as she would her family. Because she is a talented individual with a good eye, she captured some iconic shots and learned as she went along. After meeting Bea Feitler, Annie was driven to become better and expand her ideas. She studied past photographers and their work and her work became more conceptual and diverse. Each commission grew larger in scale, and from cutting off the thorns of hundreds of roses by hand for Bette Midler, Annie has become a world famous photographer who has huge teams at her beck and call. She is renowned for her colossal, wonderous ideas which require huge budgets to achieve – but she usually gets that budget. The images she creates are breathtaking and immediately recogniseable as her work.
However, despite her growth and commercial success, Annie remains a true snapshot photographer. She is constantly documenting her family and friends at home by taking hundreds of pictures, and her three young children are used to her having a camera in hand. Annie seems to deal with life through the lens of her camera. Whereas for most people it would seem strange or disrespectful to take pictures of a sick or dying loved one, photography was Annie’s coping mechanism when her partner Susan and her father Sam passed away. She has been constantly taking photographs since picking up a camera out of boredom on her father’s airbase in the Philippines when she was 16, and she’s not going to stop now. She said she wants to keep on taking photos until the day she dies.
“Taking photos of my family and people to whom you are close to is a privilege, and it certainly brings a certain kind of responsibility”
‘My Parents with My Sisters Paula and Barbara and Paula’s Son’, Peter’s Pond Beach, Wainscott, Long Island, 1992 by Annie Leibovitz
4. What one question would you ask her?
I feel that this documentary, perhaps because it was a project between sisters, was very honest and answers a lot of questions I might have about Annie Leibovitz as a person or her life. I did however notice that when she was being filmed on shoots, she used many different types of cameras, and even said in the Vogue shoot with Kirsten Dunst that she was “switching formats”. I would love to ask her about the different types, brands and formats of cameras she uses and what she feels each one brings to the image. I recognised medium format, DSLRs and perhaps CSCs or compact cameras in her arsenal and wonder which one the final images come from, and how it varies depending on her subjects.
Annie Leibovitz with a Mamiya medium format camera, photographer unknown
5. What do you think of her work? Which work are you most interested in from her varied portfolio?
Personally, I think Annie Leibovitz’s work is fantastic. She has lived an interesting and varied life coloured by history, drugs, fame, love and loss. All this time she kept her family and her work as her foremost priorities and still produced individual and thought-provoking work. Her eye for detail is shown by her framing of a documentary style snapshot, but also in her choices of colours and tones in her fashion work. She has depth and vision, which inspires me and I can only hope to emulate. What I admire most is that she has not allowed herself to become restricted by one kind or type of photography, but has dabbled in everything and allows her creativity to shine through.
The work I find most interesting is her celebrity portraiture. What I like the most about this work is that she humanizes her sitters and brings some of their character and personality across to the viewer. She does not believe that a portrait can capture the essence of a person, but she does believe that a portion of it can come across – and in my opinion she achieves this.
“The way Annie photographed people told us who they are. Portrait photography had been around for decades… but Annie brought a totally different dimension to it.”
As a fan of John Lennon, my favourite image by Annie Leibvoitz has to be the Rolling Stone cover of him and Yoko Ono. I find this extremely powerful and emotive, and believe that even if he had not been cruelly murdered that the image would have still achieved fame and the recognition it deserves. For the sake of choosing an image I have not already included, another picture I admire is her portrait of Heath Ledger. For me, it captures the essence of a troubled young star with so much to offer the world, yet with so many dark thoughts occupying his mind. He doesn’t seem to be engaged with the camera or the viewer, and his emotional distance only enhances the perception of inner turmoil and emotional detachment.
Vanity Fair ‘Something Just Clicked’ featuring Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger, 2008 by Annie Leibvoitz
The video of the documentary can be found here: