Annie Leibowitz (1949- )

The photography of Annie Leibovitz could be seen as a metaphor for Visual Culture.  All her photography comments on her time and its people, whether a fantasy shoot for Vogue Magazine, political portraiture for Borak Obama, or images of war-torn Sarejevo.

Annie Leibovitz: Her success and fame (video)

Annie Leibovitz is an American photographer who rose to fame taking shots of The Rolling Stones (started work as a photographer on Rolling Stones magazine) and other pop figures of the 1960s including John Lennon and Yoko Ono.  She is a noted portrait photographer, having photographed most important figures in the USA since that time.

Her practice includes commercial photography, social commentary and journalism.  Her background was in journalism rather than fashion photography.  For portraits, she attempts to get to know the subjects so she can make more insightful work.

The Rolling Stones cover image of Yoko One being cuddled by nude John Lennon was taken just hours before Lennon’s assassination.  The image itself is controversial as it reverses the usual nude female/clad male dichotomy.  The timing made it a world wide signifier of the life and death of Lennon and the pop super-fame figure and licentious lifestyle it represented (despite the monogamous relationship between Lennon and Ono).  Another such success was the Bette Midler bedded in roses Rolling Stones cover to advertise the movie The Rose.  

Her large scale ‘productions’ with locations, large casts and multiple props have led to her work being sought for fashion and advertising work.

Pennsylvania State Marching Band with actors in Liebovitz’s Wizard of Oz images for Vogue.
Vogue photoshoot in Paris

Liebovitz formed a relationship with writer Susan Sontag – a productive and thoughful collaboration, leading to visits to Sarejevo during the war.

Liebovitz says the key to success is to learn from work of the past, and then find out as much as possible about the subjects of the work.

Other videos about Annie Liebovitz

Annie Leibovitz:  Life Through a Lens

Annie Leibovitz shoots Marie Antoinette

Annie shooting stills to go with the movie on location at Verseilles.  Vogue editor says it’s worth having Annie to shoot for Vogue, despite the cost, because of her perfectionist way of working … “She cares”.

Annie Leibovitz, A Photographer’s Life, 2006, Random House, New York.

This is a photographic essay of Annie Leibovitz’s photography, with an accompanying essay by the photographer.

The essay

The catalyst for the book was the death of Susan Sontag, Leibovitz’s long term partner, who died in December 2004 (it began as research for photos for a short book for those at Sontag’s memorial service).

  • Leibovitz began photography in the 1960s, while studying at San Francisco Art Institute.
  • began as art assignment to photograph things with personal importance
  • This volume was originally personal work – commercial work was then included because to Leibovitz ‘I don’t have two lives.  This is one life and the personal pictures and the assignment work are all part of it.’

Susan Sontag at Petra, Jordon. Leibovitz initial intent was for the figure of Susan Sontag to give scale to the scene. After Susan’s death, Annie reflects, ‘Now I think of it as reflecting how much the world beckoned Susan.’

Susan concludes her commentary on the photograph with ‘And since the facade is covered with funerary symbols, and since it was probably used as a tomb or mausoleum, the picture sounds the themes of death and grief that winds through the book.’

My reflection:  This shows that, even to the artist herself, the work develops multiple layers of meaning, especially in retrospect.  The picture now reflects Annie Leibovitz’s current perspective on life, through her experience of war assignments, the tragedy of September 11, 2001, and the personal impact of the deaths of her father and her soul mate, Susan Sontag. 

“I finally realised that I liker the locations best without a subject in them, which brought me to landscape photography.”  Annie Leibovitz discusses how, on searching for locations for professional shoots, she loved the locations themselves.  In this, Susan Sontag had inspired her with a love of travel and exotic places and the wish to view something from her own unique perspective – putting eyes/camera in the exact place from which Susan viewed the scene.  This led to a commission to do more landscape work for Conde Nast Traveler.  Leibovitz describes searching for the right site to take photographs of Monument Valley – using Ansel Adams photography as inspiration.  In the end Leibovits shot from a helicopter at low altitude – shots were blurry but satisfying to her.  Annie Leibovitz, Monument Valley

(Image source:

To shoot this image, Leibovitz also considered the work of Bernd and Hilla Becker who photographed industrial and agricultural structures (typological studies) finding a high vantage point so they viewed the tall structures straight on.

Bernt and Hilla Becker, Water Towers, 1972

Leibovitz’s work for the travel magazine ended when her work on a Costa Rica beach was stormy weather – the magazine needed benign sunlit beaches.

Despite her fame for work in Rolling Stones magazine and other portrait work, Leibovitz does not consider herself a good studio portrait photographer.  Prefers to work with composition and on location.  “At best my photographs are graphic.” Contrasts herself with Richard Avedon – “He pulled things out of his subjects.  But I observe.”

Leibovitz discusses personal family photographs.  Selection of just one image from many do not tell the story as well as several – so these sections of the book may contain 4 photographs on a double page spread.  Biographical information about Leibovitz’s parents and her growing up shows a close family with six children (of whom Annie was the third).  As an adult, Annie Leibovitz purchased a rural property of two hundred acres with a series of barns in the Arts and Crafts style, at Rhinebeck on the east side of the Hudson River as somewhere her whole family could congregate.  By this time she and Susan Sontag were a staunch partnership. Family snaps, Annie’s mother and her brother and father. Image source:

Annie with first daughter, Sarah at the Rhinebeck property.  Photograph Lloyd Ziff

Cate Blanchett – Annie Leibovitz gets to know her subjects by watching them. Image source: (for a brief biography of Annie Leibovitz).

Bill Gates, 1994,

Commenting on her commission to take portraits of Bill Gates, Annie Leibovitz writes, ” When I shot Bill Gates at his home in Bellevue, Washington, every time we set up lights between shots he would disappear and I’d find him sitting at his computer.  … The I realized that that was the picture.

Promotion image for Las Vegas Casino – Susan McNamara, Bally’s Casino, Las Vegas, 1995

Susan McNamara, Las Vegas, 1995

Two show girls are featured in a shoot for Bally’s Casino in Las Vegas.  The book features these, along with black and white photographs of the women, without costume and make-up.  Without the facade of glamour and sex, they become normal women rather than eroticised objects to titivate and promote an image.

Demi Moore, pregnant with Scout Larue Willis, Smashbox Studios, Culver City, California, 1991

Annie Leibovitz got to know many of the celebrities she photographed. Sometimes this led to lasting friendships.  For example, Demi Moore invited Leibovitz to do her wedding photography, and agreed to have nude photographs taken when she was heavily pregnant.  The one below was featured on the cover of Vanity Fair in 1991.

Annie Leibovitz is, perhaps, best known for her fashion and entertainment celebrity work, but her personal, landscape and documentary work is at least as strong.  This makes up the bulk of the photographs in her book.  Where celebrities are shown, it is often in the moments between the professional shoots. Sam’s Point Preserve, Ellenville, New York, 1999

The bulk of this heavy volume is made up of photographs, often over a double page.  They cover the gamut of family photographs, images of Susan in many places both close to home and around the world (for example a double page spread of four photographs taken of Susan in a car in Mexico in 1989), landscapes and architecture, nudes (including pregnant women), portraits (often on location), interiors (with an without people), still life, and war photographs (in Sarajevo).

The work is an expose of the artist’s life and loves, with many heart-stopping images.  Good art makes the heart weep.  I’m weeping.

Annie Leibovitz’s parents with grandson, Ross, Long Island, 1992. Image source

Susan Sontag, Mexico 1989 Image source:

The Malecon, Havana, 1996 (Photograph from the book) Image source:

Sarejevo, 1994

Annie Leibovitz took this photograph after the boy riding the bike had been hit by a sniper’s bullet.  The boy died on the way to hospital.  Annie Liebovitz does not hide from death.  Her book includes photos of her partner Susan and her father as they approached death and after death, as well as other images of death in Sarejevo and Africa.

The Great Pyramid of Khufu, Giza, Egypt, Image source, Annie Leibovitz, A Photographer’s Life  

Who else but Annie Leibovitz would depict an object by its absence.  Still life images, also, are used throughout the book, to give information about places, things and people.

Susan’s Shell Collection, 1990

Susan’s shell collection, King Street sunporch, New York, 1990 Image source:

This is an example of one of the still life photographs in the book.

This is further article about the book A Photographer’s Life. Anne De Witt discusses Annie Liebovitz’s photographs of Susan Sontag.

A thoughtful article from Project Muse entitled leibovitz a photographer’s life pridmore-brown about the relationship between Leibovitz, Sontag and the birth of Leibovitz’s three children.

Sometimes Annie Leibovitz’s imagery just takes my breath away. Image Source

Disney – Taylor Swift at Rapunzel.

Annie Leibovitz, Annie Leibovitz at Work, 2008, Jonathon Cape, Random House, London.

This book is part autobiography, and partly an expose of Leibovitz’s work processes, explaining how particular people and pictures were conceived and realised.  The text is based on conversations with Sharon DeLano and edited by her.  A large number of previously published photographs are included, mainly in small size – A6 or smaller.  Many of the photos shot on film have the negative border printed.

As well as celebrities such as John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Demi Moore, O.J.Simpson, Queen Elizabet II, and The Rolling Stones, there are close friends and family including Susan Sontag and Annie’s Mother.   Leibovitz also explains her process for dealing with specific, non- portrait topics, including war, Dancers, Nudes, Presence and Charisma and Hollywood.

Four appendices outline Leibovitz’s equipment, ten most asked questions, the publishing history of the photographs and a chronology of Leibovitz’s life.

Leibovitz explains how her photography has evolved over time, both in skill and equipment, with quite a section on the change from film to digital photography.  She explains that her portrait shoots are always planned beforehand, often using a stand-in.  She explains that it is important to have various scenarios available to her subjects so there is some choice.

This book complements Life through a Lens – fleshing out the nuts and bolts of the process.  It is obvious that, like all exceptional artists, hard work is a major part of the practice.

(My copy of the book came on inter-library loan from UTS Blake Library.)

Annie Leibovitz & Susan Sontag, Women, 1999, Random House, New York and Toronto.

Polly Weydener, Retired Chiropractor’s Assistant Image source:

Raymonda Davis, Soldier, Basic Training, Fort Jackson, Colombia, South Carolina Image source:

Girls Choir of Harlem, New York City Image source:

The women photographed for this book are of women – often portraits, sometimes in groups.

Kilgore College Rangerettes, Kilgore, Texas Image source:

Many, like Raymonda Davis are depicted with the trappings of their work.  Only one, Barbara Bush, Former First Lady is portrayed as being the wife of a famous person (however, in my opinion, it is because of her work in this role, rather than being George’s wife, that she is shown).  Many are photographed in action like the ones below of Missy Giove, mountain biker, and Marion Jones, sprinter.

Image source:

Marion Jones, Sprinter Image source:

Some of the subjects are confronting.   For example there is a group of girls from an all-girls gang, and two woman who are the victims of domestic violence.

Janie Martinez, Angie Idrogo, Jackie Sonstancio, Members of the West Side Crips all-girl gang, San Antonio, Texas Image source:

Barbara Anne Smith, victim of domestic violence, YWCA Women’s Shelter, Bridgeport, Connecticut Image source:

Some of the poses are controversial…

Diamanda Galas, Performance artist, New York City Image source:

Ages range from children to old age.

Candy Haney and Tommy Lynn, Circle K convenience story, Rockdale, Texas
Candy Haney and Tommy Lynn, Circle K convenience story, Rockdale, Texas

(Image source:  Annie Liebovitz and Susan Sontag, Women, 1999)

Eudora Welty, Writer, Jackson, Mississippi Image source:

These are not John Berger’s women who see themselves as passive objects, gaining their self-image from how others, and in particular, men see them.  These women are empowered, even when they are in traditionally female roles.  Even when in the titillating poses of showgirls, Leibovitz and Sontag portray them as women of action, whose role is not just to be ancillaries – wives, mothers – seen only because of their relationships to others.

This also contrasts with Lothar Schirmer’s Women Seeing Women: A pictorial history of Women’s Photography from Julia Cameron to Annie Leibovitz.  Whereas Schirmer selects women who fit more into the ‘male gaze’ Bergeresque idea that women are passive creatures only exist to themselves when seen through the gaze of others (and, in particular, men),  Leibovitz’s women are photographed for themselves, as active, real entities for whom the gaze of others is irrelevant.

“Each of these pictures must stand on its own.  But the ensemble says, So this is what women are now – as different, as varied, as heroic, as forlorn, as conventional, as unconventional as this.” Susan Sontag, Women, p. 20.

Susan Sontag’s Essay for Women:


  • If this were a book of portraits of men, the profession/role of the men would not need to be given – males stand alone without the need for justification
  • the pictures stand individually, but, in ‘ensemble’, the group both confounds and confirms the stereotypical position of womanhood.
  • For women, ‘sex object’ may be the primary identity.  When men are viewed as sex objects, it is never their primary identity.  – Sontag expounds on men as being, ‘at least potentially, the creators and curators of their own destinies and women as objects of male emotions and fantasies (lust, tenderness, fead, condescension, scorn, dependence), of regarding an individual man as an instance of humankind and an individual woman as an instance of… women…’ 21
  • comments that in many Muslim countries, women are legal minors – thus having no legal rights, except those bestowed by husbands or fathers.
  • The book is about women in America, in the early 21st century (imprint) 2009.  There is a sign of change.  Women:
    • usually need to work in paid employment even if they have small children
    • may work in any profession (though many are still biased towards men)
    • have ambition other than that bestowed by their relationship to others (wife, mother, daughter, carer, dependent)
  • BUT
    • still receive less pay for the same work as men (usually 1/2 to 2/3!)
    • are viewed negatively if they display traditional male qualities – strength, ruggedness, hardness of character etc. (‘To be feminine … is to be attractive; to be masculine is to be strong.’22  “Women, ideally, don’t look forceful.” 24
    • are viewed as more acceptable (even in positions of power) when they display traditionally feminine traits – and “it is a weakness in a man to care a great deal about how he looks, it is a moral fault in a woman not to care “enough”.” 22
    • are punished for the effects of aging – “reinforced by ideals of youthfulness and slimness.”23

This is a much deeper view into the female/male gulf than the single-faceted one of John Berger, but elaborates and expands this in the light of the body of Leibovitz’s work presented.

  • Though, in the West, there is a plethora of images “in which people, women and men, are eager to surrender themselves to the camera”, there are parts of the world where photographing women is taboo, and where ‘women scarcely appear at all.’ 23
  • this move towards giving rights and choices (a move towards equality of the sexes) is considered a mark of modernity, there is a movement fo rescind this in some cultures.  “In many countries struggling with failed of discredited attempts to modernize, there are more and more covered women.’ 24
  • “Portraits of women featured their beauty; portraits of men their “character”.” – about traditional images of women and men.
  • Example of Julia Margaret Cameron who photographed men and women differently.  Women portraying the ideals – figures from history, mythology, literature – showing e.g. ‘the vulnerability of Ophelia; the tenderness of the Madonna with her Child’.  24  For JMC a woman’s beauty qualified her for photography.  “Fame and achievement qualified the men.”25.  JMC only photographed white women, known to her through her life, never exotic people – stopped photography when she moved (with her husband) to Ceylon.
  • Discusses beauty – in all its facets.  “In a woman beauty is something total.  It is what stands, in a woman, for character.  It is also a performance; something willed, designed, obtained.” 29
  • “Beauty – as photographed in the mainstream tradition that prevailed until recently- blurred women’s sexuality.” 30 Any sense of female libido has been frowned upon (this equates with the passivity of Berger’s women) – female sexuality has had a negative image, whereas that of the male denotes virility.
  • The cult of the beautiful, ideal woman is as strong as ever, though the form may have changed – more outgoing, less downcast gaze.  32/33
  • The violence of men towards women is no longer seen as acceptable – e.g. our royal commission into domestic violence.
  • However, there is still a very long way to go – to equality of pay, even though many women are the principal bread-winner for families.  Many jobs are still labeled by gender, and, with few exceptions (nurse, secretary, prostitute) stating occupation presupposes maleness.  33
  • Couples tend to be made up of bigger, older, richer, more powerful men.  If a woman is the strong one (or has a prominent occupation) the husband is questioned as to whether he might feel ‘threatened’.  Not so, in the reverse.  34
  • “We want photographs to be unmythic, full of concrete information.  … We expect the photographer to be bold, even insolent.  We hope that subjects will be candid, or naively revealing.”34
  • “That women, in the same measure as men, should be able to fulfill their individuality is, of course, a radical idea.  It is in this form, for better and for worse, that the traditional feminist call for justice for women has come to seem plausible.” 36z,

Annie Leibovitz, Pilgrimage, 2011, Jonathan Cape, Random House, London.

Introduction by Doris Kearns Goodwin

In her pilgrimage to research places and people of significance across the USA and the world, continues her quest of significance first begun with long-time partner Susan Sontag.  However, she states that this is a personal list.  However, references to Sontag abound, not least in the first entry, Emily Dickinson, who was Sontag’s favourite poet.

Whereas her travels with Sontag were world wide, for this book, only the quest for Virginia Woolf, Sigmund Freud and Charles Darwin took Leibovitz outside the USA.

Leibovitz’s written narrative weaves the characters and places with her own personal eye for photography.  For example, at Gracelands, the home, now museum for Elvis Presley, one of the photographs shows a 1970s television set with bullet hole in the screen.  Image source:

This contrasts a page or two on with vegetables and autumn scenes from Thomas Jefferson’s vegetable garden at Monticello, and Georgia O’Keefe’s handmade pastels at the Smithsonian Institute.    Image source:

Image Source:

Without the constraints of a commission, Annie Leibovitz makes each place and person her own with unique imagery.  The book is the opportunity for others to share in her vision.  The pictures tell a story in themselves, but the narrative ties them together into a unity, and Leibovitz shares her unique perspective.

Annie Leibovitz, Photographs 1970-1990, 1991, Harper Collins, New York

Introductory interview:  A conversation with Ingrid Sischy

This is a transcription of discussion with Annie Leibivitz and observations by Ingrid Sischy.  For example, she comments that Leibovitz bookshelves contain mostly books of photographs from other photographers, her NY apartment has wonderful views (shown later in photographs of the dust pall after the destruction of the twin towers).

Early days and becoming a photographer

  • started taking photos at art school
  • father was at Clark Air Force Base in Philippines – so Leibovitz photographed people there – leading to e.g. Queen of the Negritos with US airmen, Clark base, Philippines. 1968 Source:
  • Influenced by family photographs – Annie had similar family photos to the above or her mother’s family
  • long association with Rolling Stone magazine began when AL submitted her photos from living in a Kibbutz as a student – anti-war images which later ran in the magazine’s regular photo gallery.  Led to more Rolling Stone assignments and many cover photographs.
  • Conflict with whether her selling commercially might be betraying her aims to take fine art photos – but publication is a powerful impetus – seeing her photos on magazine stands.
  • Discussion of Leibovitz’s work ethic – hard working, rarely takes a break, engrosses self in work – such that images taken today are printed ready for publication this evening (pre-digital – development and printing manually)
  • Discussion of working with various stars including John Lennon and Mick Jagger
  • Use of body as well as face as ‘a means of expression’ – e.g. images of Arnold Schwarzenegger.  In particular, discussed the image of John Lennon and Yoko Ono (Lennon Nude in fetal position) – AL “I could always rely on my sense of composition and form.  …in the beginning it was just me and my subject.” (later had assistants, and initially had no experience working with make-up professional, fashion experts etc. ) (This photo was reproduced on the book’s cover.)
  • Discussion about nude photography – that AL’s photos are different from other nudes – also ‘painted bodies’ and artists who paint themselves – like the series on Keith Haring
  • Says influenced by her mother’s dancing background when photographing dancers.  – loves photographing dancers – a commission to work with White Oak Dance Project – AL places the dancers in the natural environment – “Dancer’s are a photographer’s dream.  They communicate with their bodies, and the are trained to be completely responsive to a collaborative situation.” p. 12
  • Self-portraiture – “I think self-portraits are very difficult.  I’ve always seen mine as straightforward, very stripped down, hair pulled back.  No shirt.  Whatever light happens to be available.  I’d want it to be very graphic – about darkness and light.  No one else should be there, but I’d be scared to do it myself.  I’ve been thinking about it for a very long time.  The whole idea of a self-portrait is strange.  I’m so strongly linked to how I see through the camera that to get to the other side of it would be difficult.  It would be as if I were taking a photograph in the dark.”  Annie Leibovitz self portrait Images source:×400.jpg  (This image is not in Photographs 1970-1990).

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