October 2, 1949– Annie Leibovitz was always my choice to shoot the cover for my much anticipated first album Low Hanging Fruit. I would have given the world’s greatest living portrait photographer full creative carte blanche, trusting her to bring out the authentic Stephen.
In 1970, Leibovitz approached Jann Wenner, the gay founding editor of Rolling Stone Magazine, which he’d recently launched and was operating out of a funky office on Brannan Street in San Francisco. Impressed with her portfolio, Wenner gave Leibovitz her first assignment: photographing John Lennon. Leibovitz’s black and white cover portrait of the former member of The Beatles graced the January 21, 1971 issue. Two years later she was named the magazine’s chief photographer.
In 1980, Rolling Stone sent Leibovitz to photograph Lennon and Yoko Ono, who had recently released their amazing album Double Fantasy. For that portrait, Leibovitz imagined that the pair would pose naked. Lennon took off his clothing, but Ono refused to take off her pants. A disappointed Leibovitz told Ono to leave her clothes on. Leibovitz:
“We took a single Polaroid and the three of us knew it was profound right away.”
The result shows Lennon naked and curled around a fully clothed Ono. It would be iconic anyway, but just hours later Lennon was murdered, shot dead in front of his residence at the famed Dakota Apartments on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The photograph was the cover of the Rolling Stone Lennon commemorative issue. In 2005, the American Society Of Magazine Editors named it The Best Magazine Cover of the 20th Century.
In 1983, Leibovitz left Rolling Stone to work for Vanity Fair. With a wider choice of subjects, her portraits for Vanity Fair ranged from Presidents to writers to rock stars. Her covers for the magazine have featured Leibovitz’s stunning and frequently controversial portraits of celebrities: a naked and very pregnant Demi Moore, Whoopi Goldberg sitting in a bathtub of milk and last summer Ms. Jenner’s Call Me Caitlyn reveal are among the most remembered. Always noted for her ability to make her subjects become physically involved in her work, one of my most favorite Leibovitz portraits is of the late, great gay artist Keith Haring, who painted himself like one of his canvases for his photograph.
At the end of the 1980s, Leibovitz worked on a several campaigns that changed the advertising world, including the terrific, revealing American Express “Membership” ads featuring her portraits of celebrity cardholders, including Elmore Leonard, Tom Selleck and Luciano Pavarotti. This work earned her the Clio Award, the advertising biz’s Oscar.
“I don’t have two lives. This is one life, and the personal pictures and the assignment work are all part of it. I try for most intimate, it tells the best story, and I care about it.”
Leibovitz has been made a Commandeur des Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the government of France. She has been designated a Living Legend by the Library Of Congress. Her first museum show Photographs: Annie Leibovitz 1970-1990 was held in at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. in 1991 and it toured internationally for 6 years. At the time she was only the second living portraitist and the only woman to have been featured in an exhibition by that hallowed institution.
In 1998, Leibovitz met writer Susan Sontag while photographing the noted writer for her book Aids And Its Metaphors (1989). The pair of titan talents became lovers, but kept separate apartments. I like that. Leibovitz:
“I remember going out to dinner with her and just sweating through my clothes because I thought I couldn’t talk to her. Sontag told me: ‘You’re good, but you could be better’.”
Sontag’s influence on Leibovitz was profound. In 1993, Leibovitz traveled to Sarajevo during the Balkans War, a trip that she admits would not have taken place except for Sontag’s insistence. Among her pieces from that trip is Sarajevo: Fallen Bicycle Of A Teenage Boy Just Killed By A Sniper, a profoundly powerful black and white photograph of a bike collapsed on blood-smeared pavement. Sontag, who wrote the accompanying essay, also conceived Leibovitz’s book Women (1999). The book includes images of famous females along with those not so well-known. Celebrities Susan Sarandon and Diane Sawyer share pages with female soldiers in basic training and Las Vegas showgirls in and out of costume.
The couple was together 15 years, until Sontag left this world at the end of 2004. Leibovitz gave birth to her first child, a daughter, when she was 51 years old. Five months after Sontag’s passing she had twin girls.
Leibozitz chronicled the end of Sontag’s time on our pretty planet, including controversial, often contentious, photographs of Sontag in her hospital room at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, barely recognizable but unmistakably dying. At around the same time, she was also photographing her 91 year old father as he was losing his battle with that damn cancer in 2005.
“Every single image that someone would have a possible problem with or have concerns about, I had them too. This wasn’t like a flippant thing. I had the very same problems, and I needed to go through it. The fact that they came out of a moment of grief gave the work dignity.”
Leibovitz has never been exactly forthcoming about being gay. Choosing the closet or not, my admiration for her work knows no bounds. It is difficult for me to find a favorite photograph to be named my favorite, this morning I would choose Meryl Streep for Rolling Stone.
Her new exhibition, Women: New Portraits, is currently touring around the globe. Gloria Steinem, whose image is hanging in the exhibition, says of Leibovitz:
“She looks beyond gender, beyond stereotypes, beyond masks of the day, to show us that everything alive is both universal and unique. Including me. Including you.”
If you can only afford to have one of her many books of pictures, choose Annie Leibovitz At Work. My copy now lives at The Husband’s shop, Boys’ Fort, in Downtown Portland. If you are around, stop in and have a seat on a piece of hand-crafted furniture and have a look.