Annie Leibovitz is famous… for many reasons. She’s had, and continues to have, a highly successful career in documenting pop culture. Her portrait work is recognizable, which is exactly what you want as a photographer; people saying, “That must be by Leibovitz” or “I can see the influence of Annie Leibovitz in this piece.” Working for successful magazines over the years, and having genuine talent, put her work often in the public eye, and often as the subject of controversy.
Annie’s photography career truly began in 1970 when she was hired as a staff photographer for the newly launched, now iconic, magazine Rolling Stone. Three years later, the magazine’s publisher, Jann Wenner, promoted her to chief photographer. She held this position for the next ten years. While with Rolling Stone, Leibovitz developed her trademark technique, which involved the use of bold primary colors, bold lighting, and surprising poses. I also found a certain sense of humor, interesting props/sets/locations, and the ability to capture motion in many of her photographs. During this time she photographed, not only musicians and bands, but other pop culture icons, as well.
Perhaps the gig that really set her career in motion was photographing the band The Rolling Stones, first in San Francisco in ’71 and ’72 and then as their tour photographer in ’75. She has spoken extensively about how this experience changed her as a professional photographer. In interviews, she has mentioned the struggles she had during this time. She was with the band non-stop for many months.
Leibovitz shared all of their experiences and developed a close relationship with the lead singer, Mick Jagger. She also said, in regard to being deeply involved in a subject like this, “You can get amazing work, but you’ve got to be careful. The thing that saved me was that I had my camera by my side. It was there to remind me who I was and what I did. It separated me from them.”
Her favorite photo from the tour was a photo of Mick Jagger in an elevator.
One of her most famous photoshoots was of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Five hours after this photo was taken, John was shot and killed.
In the 80’s, Leibovitz also worked for Vanity Fair and Vogue, where she used her trademark techniques of bold lighting and interesting poses to sell fashion.
Leibovitz landed the job as the official photographer for the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia in 1996. She followed up with a collection of these photos in her book Olympic Portraits.
In 2007, Leibovitz was the first American asked to photograph Queen Elizabeth II. This was a difficult shoot, full of logistical nightmares but inevitably produced brilliantly dramatic results.
Also in 2007, Leibovitz began working on the Disney Dream Portraits series. She recreated moments from some of Disney’s classic movies using current pop stars as her subjects.
And a couple of “behind the scenes” views of the project:
Leibovitz has been at the center of public controversy on several occasions, namely with her portraits of Demi Moore, naked and pregnant, and Miley Cyrus, seemingly naked and 15 years old.
However, these photos have inspired her supporters.
And she even inspired herself to be photographed nude while pregnant.
Throughout her career, Leibovitz’s three main influences have been Henri Cartier-Bresson, Richard Avedon, and Robert Frank.
Henri Cartier-Bresson is considered to be the father of photojournalism and helped develop street photography. He, too, was often the subject of controversy. When he photographed the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth he focused on the king’s adoring subjects and didn’t take a single photo of the king himself
Many of his photographs were published in the book The Decisive Moment. He followed this with years of traveling the world photographing people and events that have changed history; the Chinese revolution, the Berlin Wall, Gandhi’s assassination, Che Guevara and Marilyn Monroe. You can see the influence Henri Cartier-Bresson’s iconic portraits had on Leibovitz’s work.
Richard Avedon photographed cultural icons, as well; Marilyn Monroe (again), Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. He shot his portraits in black and white, capturing “…the essential humanity and vulnerability lurking in such larger-than-life figures”
More notably, Richard Avedon photographed his terminally ill father as Leibovitz photographed her partner, Susan Sontag, as Sontag was dying of cancer.
Robert Frank immigrated to the United States from Switzerland in ’47 and started his career as a fashion photographer for Harper’s Bazaar. However, he is perhaps more famous for his 1958 book entitled The Americans.
This project was a product of his ultimate disillusionment with American society’s overemphasis on wealth. He traveled the country with his family, documenting the tensions between the optimism of the 1950s and the realities of class and racial differences. Frank’s use of unusual focus, low lighting and cropping made his work the object of much initial criticism. However, his relationship with many of the artist in the Beat subculture, allowed him to reach a larger audience and, over time, he became an inspiration to other artists, including Annie Leibovitz.
Here are some of my personal “Leibovitz” favorites:
And, just for fun, here is a compilation of “Marilyns,” by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Leibovitz (using Lindsey Lohan playing Marilyn), and Richard Avedon.