Annie Leibovitz - Biography and Legacy
Biography of Annie Leibovitz
Born Anna-Lou Leibovitz in Waterbury, Connecticut in 1949, Annie, as she has become known, grew up in an idyllic middle-class family. The third eldest of six children, she was raised by parents of eastern European and Jewish descent. Her mother, Marilyn, was a modern dance instructor who instilled in Leibovitz a passion for art, including dance, music, and painting. Her father, Sam, was a lieutenant colonel in the US Air Force and, as a result, the family moved around frequently during Leibovitz's childhood. Her family credits her success as a photographer to growing up seeing the world through a car window.
In the late 1960s Leibovitz's father was stationed in the Philippines during the Vietnam war. It was a tense time for the family, and Annie's maturing political consciousness was conflicted in face of the unpopular war. It was during this time that she first began experimenting with photography, capturing pictures around the military base and nearby locales. She was far from committed to the medium however, she had no aspirations of becoming a professional photographer.
That changed in 1967 when she moved to the West Coast to attend the San Francisco Art Institute. She began studying painting with the intention of becoming an art teacher, but couldn't help embracing the free spirited, youthful, hippie culture taking shape in the city. While in her second semester she took a photography workshop and immediately changed her major. The photography school taught based on the ideas of famed modern photographers, particularly Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson - both of whom were hugely influential for Leibovitz. Frank was known for his documentary style, and his engagement with quotidian and famous subjects. Cartier-Bresson championed a similar active photographic style in Europe.
Leibovitz enjoyed the fast-paced art making process and the camaraderie with fellow classmates that the medium fostered, recalling that: "You could go out during the day, take pictures, come back and you could be talking about your pictures with other people at the end of the day." This appreciation for community foreshadows the collaborative nature of her later portraiture and editorial work.
While still in school in 1970 Leibovitz reluctantly showed Jann Wenner, the creator of Rolling Stone magazine, her photograph of the poet Allen Ginsberg smoking pot at an anti-Vietnam march. He immediately saw her talent and hired her to be a contributing photographer, and the image of Ginsberg was used as the cover for the magazine's next issue. At the time, Rolling Stone was an experimental, new magazine focused on rock music and the counterculture that emerged from the bohemian thinking of the late 1950s. The magazine and staff were open to anything, and Leibovitz referred to it as "an empty canvas waiting to be filled with images."
By the time she was 23 years old, Leibovitz had become the chief photographer for the magazine and had been given total artistic freedom to experiment with her work. In return she produced some of the publication's most iconic images, featuring the most influential musicians of the era, including The Rolling Stones, Elton John, and Bob Dylan. Her work for Rolling Stone introduced her to some of the most celebrated creative figures of the time, including the American photographic icon Richard Avedon. Avedon worked primarily as a fashion photographer and was notorious for avoiding relationships with other photographers, but he saw something in Leibovitz and the two became close, with the elder photographer taking on a mentorship role.
As in college, she enjoyed the social and collaborative environment encouraged by the magazine, and especially enjoyed working with writer and creator of gonzo journalism, Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson's erratic, fast paced lifestyle became as legendary as his writing, and he and Leibovitz shared a kindred spirit and affinity for hard partying. It was an environment and mix of personalities that led to some original work; on one particular drug and alcohol-filled night, Thompson spat fire into the face of his boss, which surprised Wenner, and Leibovitz happened to capture the notorious gonzo "prank".
Vanity Fair approached Leibovitz about becoming the magazine's first chief photographer in 1983. It was a huge a risk for the famous rock and roll photographer to move to a glossy, mainstream Conde Nast publication, but the timing was right. Her excessive drug use interfered with her work at Rolling Stone. During her 13 year tenure at the magazine, Leibovitz had overdosed twice and was rumored to have hawked her camera equipment to pay for cocaine. After time in rehabilitation, and now clean for good, the photographer was ready to begin the next chapter. Vanity Fair envisioned Leibovitz as a continuation of Edward Steichen's grand tradition of portraiture, with an added counterculture cachet. The publication also gave Leibovitz full artistic freedom, and soon celebrities, who had never wanted to be shot for the publication before, requested to work with Leibovitz in the hopes of being a part of something interesting. Unlike Rolling Stone, budgets at Vanity Fair were not an issue, and Leibovitz could be more experimental. Her portraits transitioned from simple black and white images to extravagant, staged productions full of drama and rich color.
When writer, critic, and political activist Susan Sontag needed promotional photos in 1989 she asked Leibovitz to take them. The two quickly developed a lasting, intimate relationship. They never lived together, but were partners in every sense, even living in neighboring New York apartments. While the intellectual writer, who was 16 years older than the pop culture photographer made an unusual pairing on the surface, the two did complement each other's strengths. Leibovitz introduced Sontag to the world of celebrity, while Sontag, a celebrated critic of photography and media, introduced new dimensions to Leibovitz's work. Leibovitz admired Sontag, once revealing "the fact that she was even interested in me or my work was just so flattering to me... even if she criticized it." Sontag could be tough on her at times, but Leibovitz attributes Sontag with helping her discover an intellect and seriousness in her photographs. Partly as a result of Sontag's influence, Leibovitz was given a solo exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 1991, the first by a female artist.
The early 2000s brought several transformative shifts for Leibovitz. In 2001 and the age of 51 she gave birth to her first daughter, Sarah. Sontag had been battling acute myeloid leukemia off and on during this time, and in the Spring of 2004 she learned that it had returned. Leibovitz did everything possible to help her but Sontag succumbed to her illness a few days after Christmas, devastating the photographer. At the same time her life partner was battling her disease, Leibovitz's father was also sick, and passed away from lung cancer a few weeks after Sontag. Three years later, in 2007, Leibovitz's mother died.
Leibovitz, who now commanded six figures per shoot, was notoriously bad at managing money. Her poor financial decisions culminated during the period of her mother's death, when she found herself $24 million dollars in debt. In order to pay this, Leibovitz secured a large loan, using the rights to her images as collateral. When she was unable to pay back the loan she was sued and the rights to her images were jeopardized. After a lengthy legal battle, in which she filed for bankruptcy and sold numerous properties and artworks, Leibovitz was able to pay her debt and retain the rights to her work. However difficult this period was for Leibovitz, it was also full of incredible highs. In 2000 she was deemed a Living Legend by the Library of Congress, she was awarded The Royal Photographic Society's Centenary Medal and Honorary Fellowship in 2009, and with the help of a surrogate, welcomed twin girls in 2005, whom she named Susan and Sam in honor of her lover and father.
The Legacy of Annie Leibovitz
Annie Leibovitz is known as a celebrity portrait photographer, and has become just as famous as the people she photographs. A master at capturing popular culture icons in dramatic and innovative ways, she has paved the way for other contemporary commercial photographs, like those of Mario Testino, to also be seen as legitimate works of art. Leibovitz continues to work and expand on her oeuvre in both artistic and popular venues, and her work maintains a high standard to which emerging photographers aspire.