As a photographer of today's hottest celebrities—and who herself has become a celebrity—Annie Leibovitz (born c. 1949) has chronicled popular culture for more than 25 years.
She is "a photographer of celebrities who has herself become a celebrity." For the past 25 years, no photographer has delivered more photographs of the people we most want to see than has Annie Leibovitz. Her pictures are recognizable for their bright colors, intense lighting, and above all, for unique and surprising poses. In magazine spreads and advertising campaigns, Leibovitz has demonstrated that she is a master of projecting the popular culture of our time.
Anna-Lou Leibovitz was born in Westbury, Connecticut. Her father, Sam Leibovitz, was an Air Force lieutenant colonel and because of his career, the family moved often during Leibovitz's childhood. Her mother, Marilyn Leibovitz, was a modern-dance instructor and the chief force in raising Annie and her five siblings. Leibovitz remembers taking many dance classes from her mother and other teachers. She credits this for her later interest in photographing dancers.
During high school Leibovitz played guitar and wrote music and was the head of the school folksinging club. She also developed an interest in painting and attended the San Francisco Art Institute, beginning in 1967. She considered a career as a painting instructor. During a vacation from school, Leibovitz visited her family, then living in the Philippines. She and her mother took a trip to Japan, where she bought a camera and began taking pictures.
When she returned to school, Leibovitz enrolled in a night class in photography. "I was totally seduced by the wonderment of it all," she told a writer for Art News. "To see something that afternoon and have it materialize before your eyes that same day. There was a real immediacy to it. I lived in the darkroom."
Begins Long Association with Rolling Stone
From then on Leibovitz was hooked on photography. She worked on a kibbutz, a collectively run farm, in Israel for several months in 1969. She took pictures while there and continued to snap away when she returned to California. In 1970 a friend suggested that she take her prints to Rolling Stone magazine, which was headquartered in San Francisco. Rolling Stone was just getting started then, a new magazine about rock music and the counterculture that had emerged in the late 1960s from the bohemia of the 1950s. Jann Wenner, the magazine's founder, was impressed by Leibovitz's photos. He began giving her assignments, paying her $47 a week before she had even graduated from college. Leibovitz recalled, "I can never forget the sensation of being at a newsstand and seeing for the first time my photograph transformed into the Rolling Stone cover."
By 1973, when she was only 23 years old, Leibovitz had become chief photographer for Rolling Stone; she stayed with the magazine for ten more years. During that time she traveled around the country and the world photographing everyone who was anyone in pop music. Her reputation was cemented by photographs of two subjects. One was former Beatle John Lennon. She snapped countless shots of Lennon between 1970 and his death in 1980. One of her most famous photographs was taken on December 8, 1980, only two hours before Lennon's murder.
Documents the Rolling Stones on Tour
The second subject that would spread Leibovitz's renown was the English group the Rolling Stones; she was hired by the band in 1975 to document their concert tour of that year. The photographs she produced as she traveled and lived with the Stones have been called "some of the most eloquent images ever made of the world of Rock and Roll." That project and growing acclaim for Rolling Stone made Leibovitz a big name among contemporary photographers. Unfortunately, she became associated with drugs as well as with rock and roll; the pressure of her career and nearness to rock's excesses led her to begin using cocaine. "I went on that [Rolling Stones] tour to get to the heart of something, to see what it was like," she later told Vanity Fair. "People always talk about the soul of the sitter [in a photograph], but the photographer has a soul, too. And I almost lost it." Leibovitz has admitted that it took her five years to "get off the tour," but she did, and her career continued to climb.
Develops Signature Style with Color
Leibovitz's early photographs were in black and white. When Rolling Stone began printing in color in 1974, she started using color film, staging elaborate scenes for the magazine's covers. She explained to ArtNews, "When I was in school, I wasn't taught anything about lighting, I was only taught black-and-white. So I had to learn about color myself." Nonetheless, Leibovitz quickly developed her signature style, notable for brilliant color, partly because it printed well.
During her years with Rolling Stone and in her work for other magazines, Leibovitz photographed many of the biggest names in entertainment, including keyboardist-singer Stevie Wonder, rocker Bruce Springsteen, film director Woody Allen, country songbird Dolly Parton, pop singer Linda Ronstadt, actress Meryl Streep, dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, and action film star Arnold Schwarzenegger. Initially her photographs of celebrities were like snapshots, capturing the subject in the moment. But she soon became aware of her ability to put people at ease, helping them to "let down their guard." She encouraged her famous subjects to pose for her doing crazy or silly things that frequently revealed their personalities more than just a "straight" portrait could. Another secret of Leibovitz's success is her careful pre-shoot research of her subjects: she reads their books or poetry, sees their movies or performances, and when possible, spends time observing their daily lives.
Becomes Known for Photographing Celebrities
Her best-known photographs feature actress Whoopi Goldberg with only her face, arms, and legs peeking out of a bathtub full of milk; TV star Roseanne Arnold mud-wrestling with her husband Tom; and the artist Christo wrapped in fabric like one of his artworks. Photography writer and critic Andy Grundberg pointed out how Leibovitz "exaggerates the distinctive characteristic of [the celebrities'] public image in a way that's funny and deflating." Perhaps her most controversial photograph was for a 1992 Vanity Fair cover; on it appeared actress Demi Moore—nude and very pregnant.
Broadens Reputation at Vanity Fair
In 1983 Leibovitz left Rolling Stone; shortly thereafter she became chief photographer for Vanity Fair. This afforded her the opportunity to photograph even more stars, including many artists, writers, poets, and dancers. That year she also mounted her first solo show, many of her portraits numbering among its 60 pictures. A reviewer for the Christian Science Monitor attested of Leibovitz's work: "There is humor and beauty here, as well as images that some may consider downright outrageous. … She goes a step beyond what is necessary to create striking images of famous people."
In 1986 Leibovitz added advertising to her list of assignments. She has contributed her photographs to the ad campaigns of numerous companies, among them Honda, Arrow shirts, Rose's Lime Juice, the Gap, and American Express. Her work on behalf of the latter earned her the coveted Clio Award, the equivalent of an Academy Award, from the advertising industry. Leibovitz says that some of the success of these photographs can be attributed to large budgets, most notably from American Express, which enabled her to fly her subjects to virtually any locale and allowed her to spend several days photographing them. "I've moved into the terrain of making pictures, composing, theatre," she told New York magazine.
Washington D.C. Exhibit Showcases Work
In 1991 Leibovitz was honored with a major exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. It was only the second display of the work of a living photographer ever mounted at the site. The exhibit drew more visitors during its five weeks than ordinarily visit the National Portrait Gallery in an entire year. A book was published to accompany the show titled Photographs: Annie Leibovitz 1970-1990. It contains almost 200 of her photos, dating back to her kibbutz days in 1969. In the early 1990s Leibovitz's work was shown in Arizona, Florida, Utah, Boston, and San Francisco, to name just a few of its destinations.
In 1996, the Atlantic Committee named Leibovitz the official photographer for the US Olympic Team. Vanity Fair printed her work in its May issue and Sports Illustrated featured the photographs in its official Summer Games program. In addition, Leibovitz's first attempt at photographing athletes was shown in a Centennial Olympic Park exhibit during the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, as well as in her latest photography book, Olympic Portraits.
Leibovitz herself is quite recognizable—tall, with lanky blonde hair, a prominent nose, and a broad smile. Despite the exposure she has received over the years and the stars with whom she has hobnobbed, she claims to be quite shy. An exercise enthusiast, she maintains an apartment in New York City and a home on Long Island but spends much of her time traveling on assignment. The photographer has said she sometimes regrets not having much time for her personal life, conceding, "My longest relationship has always been my work. My work has always delivered for me." But she has also claimed, "I'm happy doing exactly what I'm doing. … I can do this the rest of my life. It's only going to get better."
Despite its popularity, Leibovitz's work has received some criticism that it is superficial because of its emphasis on celebrities. More often, however, critics comment on how much her celebrity photographs reveal about their subject and about contemporary American culture. Leibovitz has said that it is important to her to study the work of earlier artists and photographers. Yet the unusual poses, vivid lighting, and unexpected elements in her portraiture indicate a totally modern vision. The reflection of culture and society has been the goal of many artists; Annie Leibovitz has amply achieved this aim with her camera.
Further Reading on Annie Leibovitz
Advertising Age, February 26, 1996.
Atlanta Constitution, February 6, 1996, p. C4.
Leibovitz, Annie, Dancers: Photographs, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.
Leibovitz, Annie, Photographs, Pantheon, 1983.
Leibovitz, Annie, Photographs Annie Leibovitz, 1970-1990, Harper Collins, 1991.
Marcus, Adrianne, The Photojournalist: Mary Ellen Mark & Annie Leibovitz, T. Y. Crowell, 1974.
Vanity Fair, April 1995, pp. 231 +.