American Icon Annie Leibovitz: Here’s What You Need to Know

Annie Leibovitz has photographed some of the world’s most famous celebrities. Her career spans more than 50 years and she’s one of the most highly regarded American photographers in history.

Jan 8, 2021By John Sewell, BA & MA Art History, University of Birmingham
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Details from Brooklyn, New York, 2017 by Annie Leibovitz, via the United Nations of Photography; Serena Williams cover for the August edition of Vanity Fair by Annie Leibovitz, 2017; and Album cover for Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A. by Andrea Klein and Annie Leibovitz, 1984


Annie Leibovitz is one of the most well-known contemporary American photographers. Having started out as a young, inexperienced amateur who managed to land a job at a prestigious global magazine, she managed to quickly establish herself as an artist who could capture the essence of her subjects like few others. 


Her career has not been without its controversies. However, her enduring talent and insatiable desire to keep on working have led her to an almost peerless status within the world of photographic portraiture.  


Annie Leibovitz: Photographer of John Lennon’s Last Shoot

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Rolling Stone Cover from January 22nd, 1981 featuring John Lennon and Yoko Ono by Annie Leibovitz, via Rolling Stone


At the age of just 21, Annie Leibovitz landed a job as a photographer for Rolling Stone Magazine – which was, at the time, one of the largest selling magazines in the world. She went right in at the deep end, and her first cover shoot was for a man whose fame was befitting of the scale of the magazine – John Lennon. After all, he had just a few years before argued that he and his Beatles buddies were more famous than Jesus.


However, it was not until a decade later that the American photographer would take a portrait of Lennon which went on to become one of her most iconic. It was also a photograph that became important in the life story of Lennon, as it was one of the final images to be captured of him before he was shot and killed just a few hours after the photograph was taken.


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The tragic events that followed Leibovitz’s portrait bring added poignancy to the tenderness expressed in the image. Lennon, naked, clings for warmth to Yoko Ono. He even expressed to Leibovitz when he saw the first polaroid version of the shot that he believed she had perfectly captured their relationship in that single snapshot. 


Leibovitz and Sontag: A Very Private Relationship

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Susan Sontag Portrait by Peter Hujar, 1975, via New Yorker


Annie Leibovitz’s own romantic relationships were for many years shrouded in mystery. Many speculated about the relationship between Leibovitz and writer Susan Sontag, who sadly died at the age of 71 in 2004. However, the two had never publicly disclosed any information about their relationship. It was clear they were close friends, and they lived within such a short distance that they could see each other’s apartments – but the two never moved in together permanently. 


However, after Sontag’s death, Leibovitz gradually became more publicly candid about the relationship which the two had shared. She made it clear that the two had been in love, saying “Call us ‘lovers’. I like ‘lovers.’ You know, ‘lovers’ sounds romantic.”


Sontag had always been relatively open about her sexuality, stating that she had known that she was bisexual from the age of 16 when she had her first encounter with a woman. She said that she had been ‘in love’ nine times in her life, four times with men and five with women. 


However, her position as an important figure in the LGBTQ community was overlooked at the time of her death because (as the newspapers claimed) they couldn’t find independently verified evidence that she had shared relationships with Leibovitz or anyone else. 


Springsteen Album Cover

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Album cover for Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A. by Andrea Klein and Annie Leibovitz, 1984, via MoMA, New York 


The next most iconic photograph that Annie Leibovitz took is one that may not instantly recognizable as a piece of her work, however, it is one of the most well-known album covers in the history of music. It’s the cover of Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 album, Born in the USA; both the cover and song itself have gone on to become global symbols for the American dream.


Leibovitz took the famous photograph of the denim-wearing, hyper-masculine behind and the strength of the artwork no doubt played a role in the astronomic success which the album received. It sold more than 30 million copies between its release and 2012, and ultimately spring propelled Springsteen’s career into the Godly status which is now afforded to him. 


An American Photographer with Global Roots

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A collection of Leibovitz’s 1975 Rolling Stones photos as seen in her 2019 retrospective photographed by Michael Juliano, via Timeout


Annie Leibovitz herself was born in the USA and is a third-generation American citizen. However, her family are of Romanian and Estonian Jewish origins. Her father served as a US Airforce pilot, while her mother was a dancer. 


Her father’s involvement in the armed forced meant that Leibovitz traveled the world as a child and it was during her father’s time in the Philippines that she began to take her first photographs. 


In fact, it was while the family were stationed in the Far East that Leibovitz applied to be a student at the San Francisco Art Institute. Here she initially set out to become a painter, following on from her mother’s love of the medium. However, after attending extra night classes on photography she soon realized that this was where her passion lay.


Taking The Queen’s Portrait

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Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II wearing Garter Robes, Buckingham Palace by Annie Leibovitz, 2007, via the Royal Collection Trust, London 


Night classes in San Francisco to taking portraits of the Queen may seem like the stuff of fantasy, but Annie Leibovitz made this her reality. In 2007, the American photographer was commissioned to take the Queen’s photograph as part of her state visit to the USA. 


The photographs capture the Queen in her finest regalia. She looks regal and powerful, yet Leibovitz still managed to capture something of her more human side too. 


However, the shoot wasn’t exactly Leibovitz’s most straight forward. The Queen ended up being half an hour late, owing to the fact it took a lot of time to get her fully kitted out in her rather extreme get-up. 


Then, during the already time-constrained session, Leibovitz asked the Queen to remove her tiara because it looked too ‘dressy.’  Unfortunately, The Queen didn’t take too kindly to this having already had to go through the process of getting it on and having her hair done accordingly. The footage of the encounter was broadcast by the BBC and considered quite the scandal. 


However, the shoot was ultimately a success. Later, Leibovitz was invited back to the palace in 2016 to shoot the Queen with her grandchildren, so Her Majesty can’t have felt too bitter about the earlier encounter.


Getting Recognition

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Leibovitz speaking at the launch of her show, ‘Women,’ 2016, via Vogue


Annie Leibovitz’s successes haven’t only come in the caliber of celebrity that she has been asked to photograph. She has also seen wide recognition for her work from critics and peers alike. 

Not only has the Library of Congress declared the American photographer a Living Legend, but she’s also received an honorary doctorate, The Royal Photographic Society’s Centenary Medal, the Paez Medal of Art and a Lucie Award.


She was also the first woman to have a solo show at the National Portrait Gallery in 2005. The show, ‘A Photographer’s Life’ was a retrospective of her career to that point and was well-received by fans and critics alike. 


Miley Cyrus 

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Miley’s infamous cover photograph for the October edition of Vanity Fair by Annie Leibovitz, 2008, via Vanity Fair


That said, while her career has been filled with successes, the controversial shoots don’t just end with that of the Queen. In 2008, Annie Leibovitz took a portrait of a 15-year-old Miley Cyrus which was not well received by a large number of critics.


Miley had, at this time, been seeing huge success on the back of her leading role in the popular Hannah Montana TV series on the Disney Channel. The photograph was for the cover image for the October issue of Vanity Fair and it showed Miley turned towards the camera, topless and covered only by a sheet. 


Controversy Never Far

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Annie Leibovitz at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago photographed by Antonio Perez, 2018, via the Chicago Tribune


However, never far from controversy, Annie Leibovitz had managed to land herself in trouble through the apparent sexualization of the young singer. Many claimed that it wasn’t appropriate for the American photographer to put Cyrus in this position, let alone photograph it and broadcast it to the world. 


When the article was published, questions were asked about the image. Although Miley defended it by saying, “No, I mean I had a big blanket on. And I thought, ‘This looks pretty, and really natural. I think it’s really artsy.’”


However, soon the outrage at the image spiraled out of control, and Miley herself was forced to apologize for her involvement in the shoot. She tweeted, “I took part in a photoshoot that was supposed to be ‘artistic’ and now, seeing the photographs and reading the story, I feel so embarrassed.” – no doubt at the request of her publicist. 


However, in 2018 she rescinded her apology with a strongly worded tweet alongside an image of the front page of the New York Post, which had labeled the shoot, “Miley’s Shame.”


Serena’s Pregnant Portrait

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Serena Williams cover for the August edition of Vanity Fair by Annie Leibovitz, 2017, via Vanity Fair


All that said, Annie Leibovitz’s provocative nature often generates much more positive outcomes than that experience might suggest. In 2017, she photographed the famous tennis player Serena Williams, during her pregnancy.


The photographs, in which Williams stands proudly in front of the camera, certainly give the impression that she is nude and not naked. Her powerful legs and defiant posture tell the story of a woman who is able to dominate her sporting field and bring new life into the world. 


Annie Leibovitz Raising Her Own Kids

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Leibovitz with her daughters, Susan, Samuelle and Sarah, 2015, via InStyle


Annie Leibovitz herself has three children. Her first was born when Leibovitz was 52 years old, and her twin girls were born to a surrogate mother in 2005. 


Her eldest, Sarah, was present at the infamous shoot with the Queen; she offered Her Majesty a bouquet of flowers as Leibovitz introduced her daughter and the rest of the team. 


Meanwhile, her twins are named Susan and Samuelle, with Susan no doubt a tribute to her late friend, lover and confidant – Susan Sontag – who had died just a year before her birth.  

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By John SewellBA & MA Art History, University of BirminghamJohn holds both a BA and an MA in Art History from the University of Birmingham, UK. His academic research focussed on nineteenth and early-twentieth century depictions of narcotics use, addiction and race-relations. However, his interests extend far beyond this; and his work covers an array of topics from many different periods and locations around the world. Alongside writing, he is also the founder of Eazyl - an online art marketplace for emerging artists which charges no commission fees.