Biography of Annie Leibovitz, American Photographer

Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles Opening of Annie Leibovitz and Piero Manzoni and Musical Performance by Patti Smith
Annie Leibovitz attends Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles Opening of Annie Leibovitz and Piero Manzoni and Musical Performance by Patti Smith at Hauser & Wirth on February 13, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. Getty Images for Hauser & Wirth / Getty Images

Annie Leibovitz (born October 2, 1949 in Waterbury, Connecticut) is an American photographer best known for her provocative celebrity portraits, shot for the magazines Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, as well as famous advertising campaigns.

Fast Facts: Annie Leibovitz

  • Full Name: Anna-Lou Leibovitz
  • Known For: Considered one of the best portrait photographers in the United States, known for her use of bold colors and dramatic poses
  • Born: October 2, 1949 in Waterbury, Connecticut
  • Parents: Sam and Marilyn Edith Leibovitz
  • Education: San Francisco Art Institute
  • Mediums: Photography
  • Selected Works: Photograph of John Lennon and Yoko Ono for the cover of Rolling Stone. The image was taken hours before Lennon's assassination.
  • Children: Sarah Cameron, Susan, and Samuelle Leibovitz
  • Notable Quote: “A thing that you see in my pictures is that I was not afraid to fall in love with these people.”

Early Life 

Annie Leibovitz was born to Marilyn and Samuel Leibovitz on October 2, 1949, the third of six children. As her father was in the Air Force, the family frequently traveled between military bases for his job. These early childhood travel experiences were indelible for the young girl, who describes the view through the car window as something akin to looking at the world through the lens of the camera. 

Cameras, both video and still, were an integral part of the young Leibovitz's life, as her mother was known to constantly document the family. It seemed natural that Annie would pick up a camera and begin to document her surroundings. Her earliest images are of the American military base on which she lived with her family in the Philippines, where her father was stationed during the Vietnam War. 

Annie Leibovitz
Photographer Annie Leibovitz poses for a portrait circa 1972. Ginny Winn / Getty Images

Becoming a Photographer (1967-1970)

Sam Leibovitz’s involvement in Vietnam caused some tension in the family. Annie would feel the full brunt of anti-war sentiment when she moved to California in 1967 to attend the San Francisco Art Institute, where she initially studied painting. 

Leibovitz inevitably gave up painting in favor of photography, as she preferred its immediacy. It served as a better mode of capturing the tumult of protests she observed while living in San Francisco. The school’s photography curriculum was greatly influenced by the American photographer Robert Frank and the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who both used small, lightweight 35mm cameras. These devices allowed them an ease and accessibility that previous photographers were denied due to their equipment. Leibovitz cites Cartier-Bresson specifically as an influence, as his work revealed to her that taking photographs was a passport to the world, which gave one permission to do and see things they would not have otherwise. 

Working at Rolling Stone (1970-1980) 

While still an art student, Leibovitz brought her portfolio to the newly founded Rolling Stone magazine, which had started in 1967 in San Francisco as the voice of a new generation of counter-cultural young minds. 

In 1970, she photographed John Lennon for the cover of Rolling Stone, her first photo session with a major star and the beginning of a career studded with famous portraits. 

Annie Leibovitz Reception
Annie Leibovitz attends a reception for an exhibtion of her work at Phillips de Pury on October 23, 2008 in London, England. WireImage / Getty Images

The magazine named her chief photographer in 1973. It was in this position that Leibovitz's ability to see what others could not was rapidly made clear. She photographed everyone, from politicians to rock stars and worked alongside some of the hottest writers of the day while on assignment, including Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, with whom she had a rocky friendship.  

Among Leibovitz’s techniques for seamlessly integrating herself into the milieu of her subjects was to act and do as they did. This strategy accounts for a common refrain among many of her sitters: “I didn’t notice she was there.” “I never liked to presume anything about a person until I got there,” Leibovitz said, a statement which perhaps can account for the lack of pretension in her early work. 

Inspired by the photographer Barbara Morgan’s images of the modern dance pioneer Martha Graham, Leibovitz collaborated with dancers Mark Morris and Mikhail Baryshnikov for a series of photographs in which she tried to capture the essence of a far less static artistic medium. 

While Leibovitz concluded that dance is impossible to photograph, her time with the modern dancers was of personal importance to her, as her mother had trained as a dancer. She later claimed that being with the dancers was one of the happiest times of her life. 

Move to New York

In 1978, Rolling Stone moved its offices from San Francisco to New York, and Leibovitz moved with them. She soon was taken under the wing of graphic designer Bea Feitler, who encouraged the photographer to push herself in order to improve her images. In 1979, Leibovitz experienced a breakthrough, as the year marked the beginning of her exploration of the potential of story portraits, images that used some sort of symbolism to lend insight into the souls or psyches of the sitters, such as Bette Midler lying in a sea of roses for the cover of Rolling Stone. 

Annie Leibovitz Book Presentation
Photographer Annie Leibovitz autographs her iconic Rolling Stone cover photo featuring John Lennon and Yoko Ono at The Biltmore Country Club Ballroom on November 25, 2008 in Coral Gables, Florida. Logan Fazio / Getty Images

In December 1980, Leibovitz returned to John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s apartment to photograph the couple at home. Hoping for a nude photograph of the two, Leibovitz asked them both to strip down, but Yoko Ono refused, which resulted in the now iconic image of the couple––John naked and Yoko fully clothed––entwined on the floor. Hours later, John Lennon was shot outside the Dakota, his residence in New York. The image ran on the cover of the next issue of Rolling Stone without a headline. 

As the official photographer for the rock group The Rolling Stones’ 1975 “Tour of the Americas,” Leibovitz began using drugs on a regular basis, at first as an effort to be one with the band. This habit eventually needed addressing, as it adversely affected the artist’s life. In the early 1980s, she amicably split with Rolling Stone magazine and went to rehab to deal with her dependence on drugs. 

Time at Vanity Fair (1983-Present) 

In 1983, the high end celebrity magazine Vanity Fair was rebooted (reinvented from the ashes of a much older magazine, which had been founded in 1913). Bea Feitler, who was a close friend of Leibovitz, insisted she work with the magazine. She was appointed staff photographer, with the ambition of becoming the “Edward Steichen of the new magazine.” This was a huge leap for the artist, as she was so deeply embedded in the world of Rolling Stone and its connection to Rock 'n' Roll and had to rebrand herself for a more general audience. 

HRH Queen Elizabeth ll Hosts Reception for UK Based Americans
HRH Queen Elizabeth ll greets photographer Annie Leibovitz at a reception for American based in England at Buckingham Palace on March 27, 2007. WireImage / Getty Images

Life With Susan Sontag (1989-2004)

Annie Leibovitz met the American writer and intellectual Susan Sontag in 1989, while photographing the writer for her book AIDS and Its Metaphors. The two had an unofficial relationship for the next 15 years. Though Sontag was described as a word person and Leibovitz an images person, their friends insisted the two complemented each other. Needless to say, Leibovitz often photographed Sontag, whom she described as “turn[ing] herself on” and taking “the work out of [my] hands.” 

Sontag pushed Leibovitz to use her photography to address more serious topics. This led Leibovitz to travel to Sarajevo in the 1990s, during the Bosnian War, as a way of reconnecting with a tradition of fotoreportage that she had become distant from during her days at Rolling Stone

Sontag died of cancer in 2004, a devastating loss for the photographer. 

Notable Work 

Annie Leibovitz Demi Moore photograph
Photographer Annie Leibovitz speaks to the media while standing in front of a portrait of pregnant actress Demi Moore during a walk-through of the exhibition "Annie Leibovitz - A Photographer's Life 1990-2005".  Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Many of Leibovitz’s images are now iconic. Among them are her image of a naked and pregnant Demi Moore, which she took for the cover of a 1991 issue of Vanity Fair. The provocative cover was extremely controversial and was pulled from the shelves of more conservative retailers. 

Controversy revisited Leibovitz when she photographed 15-year-old Disney star Miley Cyrus semi-nude for the cover of Vanity Fair, which was widely criticized for being too provocative an image for such a young girl. 

Leibovitz has also taken iconic images of Meryl Streep, Keith Haring, and Jim Belushi, among many others. She has shot numerous album covers, including the iconic Bruce Springsteen album Born in the USA

Advertising Work

Leibovitz has lent her hand—and her lens—to many notable ad campaigns over the course of her career, including for Google, American Express, Disney, and the California Milk Processor Board (whose Got Milk? campaign has achieved iconic status in the world of advertising and is the recipient of numerous media awards). 

Jessica Chastain As Princess Merida In Latest Disney Dream Portrait By Annie Leibovitz For Walt Disney Parks & Resorts
Jessica Chastain poses for acclaimed photographer Annie Leibovitz as Merida, the adventurous princess from 'Brave.' The newest "Disney Dream Portrait" was commissioned by Disney Parks for their ongoing celebrity advertising campaign which debuted in 2007. Handout / Getty Images

Popular Reception 

Annie Leibovitz’s work has been shown internationally in museums and galleries. Her work has been exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC; the International Center of Photography in New York; the Brooklyn Museum; the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam; the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris; the National Portrait Gallery in London; and the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. She has been awarded an ICP Lifetime Achievement award, an Honorary Clio award, a Glamour Award for the Visionary, an American Society of Magazine Photographers award, and an honorary doctorate from the Rhode Island School of Design, among other accolades. 

Annie Leibovitz: Portraits 2005-2016 Book Signing
A detail of Annie Leibovitz: Portraits 2005-2016 Book at Indigo Manulife Centre on November 2, 2017 in Toronto, Canada. WireImage / Getty Images

Her numerous books include Annie Leibovitz: Photographs (1983), Photographs: Annie Leibovitz 1970–1990 (1991), Olympic Portraits (1996), Women (1999), American Music (2003), A Photographer’s Life: 1990–2005 (2006), Annie Leibovitz at Work (2008), Pilgrimage (2011), and Annie Leibovitz, published by Taschen in 2014.

Her reputation for being capable of photographs that are visually striking and psychologically interesting makes her a highly sought after photographer for both artistic and commercial work. She continues to photograph for Vanity Fair, among other publications. 

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