For decades, Annie Leibovitz and her camera have exposed to the public eye subtleties of character in rock stars, politicians, actors, and literary figures that lay beneath their celebrity personae. Her work first fueled the American fascination with rock ’n’ roll dissidents in the 1970s and then, in the 1980s and 1990s, captured the essence of the day’s great cultural icons. Her photographs make plain that, as Leibovitz herself once put it, she was not afraid to fall in love with her subjects.
Anna-Lou Leibovitz was born on October 2, 1949, in Westbury, Connecticut. She was the third of six children to Marilyn Leibovitz, a modern dance instructor, and Sam Leibovitz, an air force lieutenant colonel. As the daughter of a career military officer, Leibovitz moved with her family frequently from town to town. The constant relocation fostered strong ties among the six Leibovitz children.
Leibovitz attended the San Francisco Art Institute from 1967 until 1971. She shifted her focus from painting to photography early in her college career. In 1969, she lived at Kibbutz Amir in Israel. The archaeological team on which she worked during her five months in Israel uncovered the remains of King Solomon’s Temple. By the time Leibovitz received her bachelor of fine arts degree in 1971, her photographs of Israel and a picture of the poet Allen Ginsberg at a San Francisco peace march had already landed her a job at the music magazine Rolling Stone.
Soon after she was hired, Leibovitz convinced editor Jann Wenner to grant her a breakthrough assignment. Leibovitz flew with Wenner to New York City to interview John Lennon. A photo from that trip adorned the cover of Rolling Stone, the first of dozens Leibovitz would shoot over the course of her career with the music magazine. In 1973, she was named chief photographer.
The mid-1970s brought Leibovitz an increasing amount of notoriety and its concomitant tribulations. In 1975, the rock band the Rolling Stones invited Leibovitz to document their six-month concert tour. Living in the world of her subjects, her camera did not shield Leibovitz from the rock ’n’ roll life-style. She began using cocaine on tour and struggled for years afterward to recover.
In 1983, Leibovitz put together her first major exhibit, which led to the publication of her book Annie Leibovitz: Photographs (1983). Her ability to work with her subjects to get beneath the veneer of superficiality that typically characterizes Hollywood paparazzi has reinforced her reputation as the most prominent celebrity photographer of her generation. The rapport Leibovitz develops with her subjects creates an atmosphere in which celebrities will strike the most unconventional of poses and show emotions that other photographers could not evoke. Among her most famous shots are a naked John Lennon curled around a fully clothed Yoko Ono, Bette Midler in a bed of roses, and the Blues Brothers painted blue.
In 1983, after more than a decade of photographing such rock ’n’ roll legends as Lennon, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, and Bruce Springsteen, Leibovitz left Rolling Stone for Vanity Fair. This move gave her the opportunity to shoot a broader range of subjects, including the Dalai Lama, Vaclav Havel, and Donald Trump. Her art did not suffer from the change. The American Society of Magazine Photographers selected her as the Photographer of the Year in 1984.
In addition to her work for Vanity Fair, Leibovitz became active in advertising photography. In 1986, she was the first photographer ever to be commissioned to design and shoot posters for the World Cup. A campaign she designed for American Express brought Leibovitz a storm of critical acclaim. In 1987, she received the Innovation in Photography Award from the American Society of Magazine Photographers, a Clio Award from Clio Enterprises, and a Campaign of the Decade Award from Advertising Age for the “Portraits” campaign she produced for American Express. Then, in 1990, the International Center of Photography recognized the same work by giving Leibovitz the Infinity Award for applied photography.
In 1991, Leibovitz became only the second living photographer to be featured in an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. She published this retrospective in book form under the title Annie Leibovitz: Photographs, 1970–1990. In anticipation of the centennial Olympic games, Leibovitz spent two years photographing athletes around the world. Her tour culminated in the 1996 book Olympic Portraits. In 1999, she published Women, a compilation of women’s portraits with an accompanying essay by Susan Sontag; the photographs then went on national tour.
In May 2004 her previously unpublished photographs were exhibited under the title “American Music” at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. Annie Leibovitz continues to shape public conceptions of the celebrities she photographs.
American Ballet Theatre: The First Fifty Years (1989); American Music: Photographs (2003); Misha and Others: Photographs (1992); Olympic Portraits (1996); Annie Leibovitz: Photographs (1983), and Annie Leibovitz: Photographs, 1970–1990 (1991); Shooting Stars (1973); Visual Aid, with others (1986); Women, preface by Susan Sontag (1999).
Amende, Coral. Legends in Their Own Time (1994); Contemporary Authors. Vol. 140 (1993): 278–280; Current Biography Yearbook, 1991 (1991): 360–364; Dictionary of the Arts (1994); ICP (International Center of Photography) Encyclopedia of Photography (1984); Rood, Gale L. Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Culture. Vol. 1: American Culture After World War II (1994); Who’s Who in America, 1996. 50th ed. (1995); Who’s Who of American Women, 1995–1996. 19th ed. (1995).
How to cite this page
Caplan, Greg. "Annie Leibovitz." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 28, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/leibovitz-annie>.