Annie Leibovitz: The Legacy of a Photographer’s Life and Times
Annie Leibovitz’s Life Has Taken a Sad and Dark Turn
Annie Leibovitz was clearly very unhappy about what a lifetime-achievement award said about her, that the best days of her 40-year career were behind her. Accepting the honor from the International Center of Photography last May, the 59-year-old Leibovitz said, “Photography is not something you retire from.” Photographers, she said, “live to a very old age” and “work until the end.” Then her tone turned rueful. “Seriously, though, this really is a big deal,” she said, hoisting her Infinity Award statuette, her voice quavering to the point where it seemed she might cry. “It means so much to me, you know, especially right now. It’s, it’s a very sweet award to get right now. I’m having some tough times right now, so.…“
The 700 friends and colleagues who had come to share the evening with her knew about the “tough times.” She recently had been sued for more than $700,000 in unpaid bills, and in February the New York Times ran a front-page story reporting that in order to secure a loan, Leibovitz had essentially pawned the copyrights to her entire catalogue of photographs. Even those who had known she was in trouble were shocked to learn about the extent of it. Leibovitz was responsible for some of the world’s most iconic magazine covers: a naked John Lennon with Yoko Ono for Rolling Stone, Demi Moore, naked and pregnant, for Vanity Fair. She had moved from celebrity portraiture to fashion photography to edgier, more artistic pictures; some considered her the heir to Richard Avedon or Helmut Newton.
Leibovitz’s life has now taken a decidedly dark turn. Her reference to “tough times” was significantly understated. In the past five years, Susan Sontag and both of Leibovitz’s parents have died. Her debts now total a staggering $24 million, consolidated with one lender with whom she is engaged in a lawsuit and due on Tuesday, September 8th. If she can’t meet that deadline, she may lose her homes and the rights to her lifetime body of photographic work. Friends say that Leibovitz has begun to think of herself less as a celebrity artist leading a charmed life and more as a single mother of three, who is fighting to keep a roof over her head and food on her family’s table. It isn’t surprising, then, that she bristled at the lifetime-achievement award. The fear of no longer working is terrifying to her. She has to work.
Read more about how this has happened to Annie Leibovitz in New York Magazine here.
Biographic Notes: The Life and Times of Annie Leibovitz
Annie Leibowitz was born in Westbury, Connecticut, one of the six children born to Sam, an Air Force lieutenant, and Marilyn Leibovitz, a modern dance instructor. In 1967, Leibovitz enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute, where she developed a love for photography. After living briefly on an Israeli kibbutz, in 1970 Leibovitz returned to the United States and applied for a job with the start-up rock music magazine The Rolling Stone. Impressed with Leibovitz’s portfolio, Editor Jann Wenner offered her a job as a staff photographer. Within two years, the 23-year-old Leibovitz was promoted to Chief Photographer, a position that she held for the next 10 years. Her work with the magazine gave her the opportunity to accompany the Rolling Stones band on their 1975 international tour. While with The Rolling Stone, Leibovitz developed her trademark technique, which involved the use of bold primary colors and surprising poses. Wenner has credited her with making many of The Rolling Stone’s covers collector’s items, most notably an issue that featured a nude John Lennon curled around his fully clothed wife, Yoko Ono. Taken on December 8, 1980, Leibovitz’s photo of the former Beatle was shot just hours before his death.
In 1983, Leibovitz left The Rolling Stone and began working for the entertainment magazine Vanity Fair. With a wider array of subjects, Leibovitz’s photographs for Vanity Fair ranged from presidents to literary icons to teen idols. A number of Vanity Fair’s covers have featured Leibovitz’s stunning and often controversial portraits of celebrities. Demi Moore (very pregnant and very nude), Whoopi Goldberg (half-submerged in a bathtub of milk) and her widely controversial photographs of Miley Cyrus are among the most remembered actresses to grace the cover in recent years. Known for her ability to make her subjects become physically involved in her work, one of Leibovitz’s most famous portraits is of the late artist Keith Haring, who painted himself like one of his canvases for the photo.
In 1991, Leibovitz’s collection of over 200 color and black-and-white photographs was exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Later that year, a book was published to accompany the show, entitled Photographs: Annie Leibovitz 1970-1990. In 1996, Leibovitz was chosen to be the official photographer for the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. A compilation of her black-and-white portraits of American athletes, including Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson, was published in the book Olympic Portraits (1991). Widely considered one of America’s best portrait photographers, Leibovitz also published the book Women (1999), which was accompanied by an essay that was written by her lover, the acclaimed novelist Susan Sontag. With its title subject matter, Leibovitz presented an array of female images from Supreme Court Justices to Las Vegas showgirls, to coal miners and farmers. Currently, many of her original prints are housed in various galleries throughout the United States.
Annie Leibovitz: A Video Photo-Gallery
Music: Bob Dylan/Restless Farewell
Annie Leibovitz: A Photographic Retrospective
A Multimedia Presentation: Leibovitz Talks About Her American Music Photographs
Annie Leibovitz Through Her Own Lens: An Interview
Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens
Annie Leibovitz: Images of Love and Loss
What may be the most controversial aspect of Leibovitz’s book, A Photographer’s Life: 1990-2005, is the series of intimate pictures from her relationship with Susan Sontag, and particularly the painful images of the writer when she was seriously ill with cancer. The two first met in the late ’80s, when Leibovitz photographed her for a book jacket. They never lived together, although they each had an apartment within view of the other’s. But their many trips to Paris, Venice, Capri, the Nile, the ruins of Petra in Jordan, are recorded here. Sontag, the author of the award-winning book of criticism “On Photography,” wasn’t easy on Leibovitz. As Leibovitz described it, “She thought I was good—and that I could be better. And I wanted to be a better photographer. She sort of raised the bar and made me feel I needed to take control.” Because of Sontag, Leibowitz went to Sarajevo during the Bosnian war, where she shot such powerful pictures as the one of a child’s bike lying in a road smeared with blood. But Sontag also loved pop culture. When Tina Brown, then Editor of Vanity Fair, seemed to hesitate about printing the pregnant Demi Moore pictures, Sontag called her up to say how great they were. “Susan was so entrenched in life, I couldn’t keep up with her,” said Leibovitz. “She was just bigger than everything.”
Sitting in her Greenwich Village office, wearing jeans and sneakers, Leibovitz explained how Sontag’s death in December 2004, followed only weeks later by the death of Leibovitz’s father, propelled her to make this book. “It totally came out of a moment,” she said. “I had already done some looking at photographs of Susan—that was very hard—for a little memorial book. I had never taken the time to see what I had, really.” She would weep and pin the pictures up on the long walls of an old barn at her country place in upstate New York. “And then, I got very excited, trying to look from 1990 to 2005, as if Susan was standing behind me.” Leibovitz teared up and reached for a box of tissues.
She struggled over whether to publish the few photos from Sontag’s last weeks of life. “They are very tough pictures,” she said. “People have said it’s important to publish them because so much is masked from us about what the end really is.” Leibovitz started to choke up again. “I think Susan would really be proud of those pictures—but she’s dead. Now if she were alive, she would not want them published. It’s really a difference. It’s really strange.” Later, collecting her thoughts, she said, “I’ve been through everything mentally and emotionally, and I’m very comfortable with them. This book is me.”
Most powerful may be the image of Sontag in death, a photograph that evokes a 19th-century memento mori. In counterpoint are the pictures of Leibovitz’s own children. She gave birth as a single mother to her daughter Sarah just after 9/11. Then, a few months after Sontag and Leibovitz’s father died, her twin girls were born, via a surrogate mother. She named one Susan and the other Samuelle, after her dad. “I saw my life with Susan, my life with my family, I saw the birth of my children,” she recalled about looking at all the pictures together. “I was mesmerized by the personal stuff. I just loved it.”
Leibovitz’s book also provides a comprehensive view of the public side of a photographer of legendary ambition and tenacity. Her well-known subjects have described her as a perfectionist who will do almost anything to get the picture she wants. “She has this kind of burning focus,” says Roseanne Cash, who’s been photographed by Leibovitz several time, one time on a beach in Maine in December when it was 3 degrees below zero. “She arrives at a shoot with all these people,” says Mikhail Baryshnikov. “It’s very intense—absolutely intense!” If time allowed, Leibovitz would spend two or three days around a portrait subject first, just getting ideas. Despite the meticulous planning, the perfect image can come out of the blue. For example, Leibovitz’s picture of Jack Nicholson. Whenever she was busy setting up a shot inside his Mulholland Drive house, he’d disappear out back to drive golf balls, and that became the photograph. And believe it or not, she didn’t intend to shoot Bill Gates at his computer, but that’s where she found him when he wandered away from her lights.
It may be her perfectionism that makes Leibovitz question her own work. “I’m not a great studio portraitist,” she says in the book’s introduction. That accolade she reserves for such photographers as Richard Avedon. “His work is a great reminder about trying to be simple and strong,” she says. Avedon knew how to talk to his subjects and “get them animated, or thinking about anything but having their picture taken.”
Leibovitz, on the other hand, likes to look rather than converse. “I’m still learning how to make the portrait more alive,” she says. Early in her career, when she started working for Rolling Stone back when it was based in San Francisco, she might spend days or weeks on the road with a band, taking pictures behind the scenes; but the more formal shots for the magazine’s cover were different. “It wasn’t like life as it was happening—my portraits started to feel like after the decisive moment,” she says, laughing. “I made myself feel a little better by saying it’s the studied moment.” As her magazine work has become more elaborate, Leibovitz seems to long for the feeling of reportage. “It would be nice once in a while to do some Life Magazine real-world imagery instead of making it up all the time,” she says. She cited a favorite shoot with Anderson Cooper in New Orleans after Katrina. “I do work for one of the largest magazine conglomerates in the world [Condé Nast, the publisher of Vanity Fair and Vogue], and they have an agenda for me,” she notes. “I’m trying to work within that and still try to do good work.” In the end, what matters to her most is not any individual picture. “I’ve always thought the strength of my work has been in the body of the work.”
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