Annie Leibovitz: Inside the Archives of the World's Most Iconic Photographer

By Jake SchroederLast Updated Apr 2, 2020 5:32:14 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Robert Scoble/Flickr

Starting out as a simple girl who liked art in Maryland in the 1960s, Annie Leibovitz grew up to make quite a name for herself in the world of photography. Her immensely successful career includes a decade as chief photographer at Rolling Stone Magazine.

In that role, she all but defined the brand's style with the photos she captured in iconic sessions with mega-celebrities like John Lennon, Meryl Streep, Michael Jackson, Whoopi Goldberg and many others. Want to see for yourself? Let's take a dive into the life and career of this legendary artist.

An Adventurous Beginning

Annie Leibovitz started her life in a small Connecticut city as the middle child of six siblings. Her large Jewish family often uprooted and moved to new places during her childhood due to her father's career with the U.S. Air Force.

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Photo Courtesy: Rachel Murray/Getty Images

Leibovitz and her family spent time living in the Philippines during the Vietnam War, which is when she first experimented with photography by snapping pictures of the surrounding military base and local families. This initial spark for photography was later reignited when she reached college.

Rediscovering Her Passion

After attending high school in Maryland, Annie Leibovitz decided to pursue her studies at the San Francisco Art Institute. At first, her artistic leanings inspired her to choose painting as a major, but that soon changed. After signing up for a photography workshop, she switched her major.

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Photo Courtesy: U.S. National Archives/Flickr

Leibovitz never strayed again from the art of photography, and she spent the rest of her college years studying the various skills associated with camera work. Part of her younger years involved working in Amir, Israel, on a kibbutz (a type of agricultural community).

Getting Her Big Break

After her escapades during college, Leibovitz returned to the United States with a drive for working in photography. Thanks to her skill and credentials, she landed a job any aspiring photographer would be glad to get: a role as a staff photographer at Rolling Stone Magazine.

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Photo Courtesy: Robert Scoble/Flickr

It didn't take long for the magazine to recognize her talent. After three years, Leibovitz was promoted to chief photographer, a role that lasted a decade and propelled her to photography fame. She played a large part in shaping the Rolling Stone style, and her reputation soared.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono

One of the most iconic images from Annie Leibovitz's career was splashed on the cover of Rolling Stone on December 8, 1980. Leibovitz was working at the magazine as chief photographer when she headed to John Lennon's apartment to snap some highly provocative shots of him with Yoko Ono.

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Photo Courtesy: Logan Fazzio/Getty Images

Leibovitz knew the pictures would be a hit, but she wasn't prepared for just how important they would become. The photos became the last ones ever taken of John Lennon before his assassination later that same day. As you can see, Leibovitz is still asked to sign copies of the magazine.

Pulp Fiction

A few young people won't recognize this iconic film directed by Quentin Tarantino, but Pulp Fiction was an instant hit in the 1990s. The hard-hitting movie grossed more than any other independent film before it, and its unprecedented success called for an equally successful photographer to do a photo shoot with the cast.

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Photo Courtesy: Paolo Gianfrate/YouTube

Annie Leibovitz captured this shot of Uma Thurman, John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis and Tarantino himself seated together in a strategic formation. It's a photograph that has been used in many mediums when discussing the influential movie.

Caitlyn Jenner

Most will remember when famous former Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner became Caitlyn Jenner. Jenner underwent this transition later in life than most — at almost 70 years old — and her great unveiling was completed with the help of none other than Annie Leibovitz.

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A 2015 Vanity Fair edition featured the glowing, feminine Caitlyn Jenner. The inside included more photographs, all taken by Leibovitz. By this time, she had long-since established herself as a successful photographer, so it's not surprising that Jenner sought her out for such a sensitive assignment.

Salma Hayek

One of the most important roles that actress Salma Hayek stepped into during her career was that of famed artist Frida Kahlo. Her depiction of the inspiring woman made an impact in the 2002 movie Frida and landed Hayek a spot on the cover of Vogue.

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She donned her Frida makeup, costume and hair and posed for Leibovitz with a monkey on her shoulder. At this point in Leibovitz's career, celebrities vied for the honor of having her as their photographer instead of the other way around. Hayek was lucky she got this opportunity.

Catherine Deneuve

Annie Leibovitz shot this image of Catherine Deneuve for a Louis Vuitton ad in 2008. She captured the French actress' best model shots on a smoky set alongside a train. For years, many well-known brands have trusted Leibovitz to capture the precise style and emotion they want for their products.

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Leibovitz has also shot many photos for Disney, Nike and Honda, to name a few. By now, pretty much any brand would love to have Leibovitz on board. She is so successful she can essentially pick and choose what inspires her.

Whoopi Goldberg

Annie Leibovitz's photo shoot with actress and comedian Whoopi Goldberg is a fan favorite among many. This iconic image appeared in the 1984 edition of Vanity Fair alongside an article entitled "Making Whoopi." The scene is photographed from above and shows Goldberg with her arms and legs in the air lying in a tub full of milk.

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Photo Courtesy: Paolo Gianfrate/YouTube

The milk perfectly frames Goldberg's face — twisted into a funny expression, of course. It illustrated a side of Goldberg the public loved and adored. This shot is just one of many that shaped Leibovitz's career.

Bruce Springsteen

Older generations are likely to be fans of knock-out singer Bruce Springsteen, and even the younger ones are likely to jam out to his hits, even if they don’t know The Boss’ name. He was the all-American rock star of his day, and one of his most famous albums is Born in the U.S.A.

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The cover for this 1984 album was shot by none other than the talented Annie Leibovitz. It features the back of Springsteen in blue jeans and a white T-shirt with a red cap hanging out of his pocket. The visual perfectly embodied the singer's image.

Johnny Depp

Actor Johnny Depp has had a long and successful career on the big screen. Long before Pirates of the Caribbean, he was nailing roles in films like Edward Scissorhands, What's Eating Gilbert Grape and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

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Leibovitz photographed Depp many times throughout his illustrious career, specifically for various Vanity Fair covers and spreads. She has captured some of the most iconic shots of this actor that his fans rush to put up on their walls as posters. The numerous photo shoots they have had together mean these two are no doubt well-acquainted.

Demi Moore

Annie Leibovitz has been known to take her fair share of elegant pregnancy photos. One example featured Demi Moore in 1991 on the cover of Vanity Fair. Moore was completely nude for the shoot, although tastefully covered in the photograph — while she was seven months pregnant.

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This was a somewhat controversial image for the time, as it depicted pregnancy in a new light. Not only was Moore proud to show her body, but she exuded beauty and sexiness otherwise unseen in pregnant women in mainstream media. The photo lives on as a classic.

The Obamas

While photographing A-list celebrities is a privilege few will experience in their lifetimes, getting an invite to photograph the President is another deal altogether. Of course, Leibovitz has such a great reputation that she was justifiably given the honor of snapping the prestigious Obama family.

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Photo Courtesy: Annie Leibovitz/Wikimedia Commons

She has produced portraits of the four family members and accompanied them on various occasions as a photographer. Needless to say, Leibovitz has made enough connections to remain one of the most elite, well-known artists in the United States for the rest of her life.

Scarlett Johansson

Later in Leibovitz's career, she began to shoot fairytale images for Disney. She designed stunning portraits of princesses like Sleeping Beauty, Ariel the mermaid and Snow White. These princesses were all depicted by popular actresses, and they chose Scarlett Johansson to pose as Cinderella.

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The image captures all the magic and wistfulness that Cinderella's tale emotes to children, and it's thanks to Leibovitz' creative mind and keen eye. She knows how to best frame the shot for each princess in a fresh and inviting way — exactly as Disney desired.

The Queen of England

Leibovitz's climb up the social ladder doesn't end with the President — she has also photographed the Queen of England. That's right, Leibovitz has captured the regalness of royalty through her camera lens. Thankfully, the Queen was satisfied with what Leibovitz produced.

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The images appeared in Vanity Fair and include the Queen sitting regally in her castle. She is dressed in her most impressive gowns and illuminated by the light from an open window. The photos seem to depict everything it means to be the Queen of England.

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Like many celebrities who have worked with Annie Leibovitz, Arnold Schwarzenegger has been photographed by her on more than one occasion. Another famous shoot of his included country singer Dolly Parton, but this one featured him alongside Franco Columbu in their bodybuilding days.

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Both were wearing scant pairs of underwear and lying near each other in bed, their skin tanned and their muscles enormous. Leibovitz depicts these two mega-masculine figures in an intimate setting, and the photograph was instantly regarded as a great achievement. It is one of her most remembered photos.

Women: New Portraits

If you think Leibovitz's work is a thing of the past, then you're gravely mistaken. In 1999, she began a series called "Women" with Susan Sontag. The series was left unfinished for more than a decade until it returned in 2016 as "Women: New Portraits."

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The women in this series bridge a variety of social realms from politics to sports to entertainment to activism. It includes Hillary Clinton, Serena Williams, Adele, Amy Schumer and many others. As one of her more recent works, it shows her career is far from over.

Gloria Steinem Approved

When you have the legendary journalist Gloria Steinem speak at your "Women: New Portraits" exhibition opening, you know you’re an icon for women. On November 15, 2016, the feminist icon shared her support of the photographer’s lifetime commitment to showing the strength of powerful women through photography.

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"Women: New Portraits" celebrates that diversity. Taken as a whole, the works tell stories of resilience and determination, whether physical or intellectual or artistic, in a tightly woven tapestry that juxtaposes women you may not associate with one another but who are nevertheless," as Leibovitz said, "sisters."

Serena Williams

Annie Leibovitz was no stranger to pregnancy photos when she did a photo shoot with the very pregnant Serena Williams. Leibovitz placed Williams in front of a plain gray backdrop, emphasizing the athlete's dark skin, and blew a fan across her long, flowing locks.

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That wasn't the only photo Leibovitz produced of the athlete, however. She also shot Williams without her large belly on a similar backdrop in nothing but black underwear. Unlike the pregnancy shoot, this photo accentuates the strength in William's body. Her muscles glisten in the black and white photograph.

Meryl Streep

It seems that there is no end to Annie Leibovitz's A-list celebrity clients. Another one of her subjects was the famous actress Meryl Streep. In fact, Leibovitz has shot Streep on multiple occasions. This specific photo, however, was taken back in 1981 for the cover of Rolling Stone.

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Since this iconic photograph was taken, plenty of fans have followed suit and taken their own photos covered in white makeup and pulling at their face. It's an early piece that won Leibovitz quite a lot of attention as a photographer.

Lance Armstrong

There are plenty of incredible athletes that don't ever reach mainstream fame. A handful, however, become household names, and Lance Armstrong is one of them. His incredible success in the world of cycling earned him a spread in a 1999 edition of Vanity Fair.

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Yet again, Leibovitz knocked it out of the park. She blew people away with her artistic photograph that shows Armstrong totally naked atop his bike, hunched over in the classic biker's position. The raindrops smattering the image are simply the cherry on top.

Eileen Collins

If there's one thing Annie Leibovitz has made clear throughout her career, it is that she admires strong women. Women who work toward the future in any way are worthy of the public's attention, and sometimes even a photo shoot with the great Leibovitz.

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One of these women is Eileen Collins, photographed by Leibovitz in 1999. Collins had accomplished the great feat of becoming the first female pilot and commander of a NASA space shuttle. With her acting as a role model, younger women everywhere could suddenly dream a little bigger.

Christo

Annie Leibovitz's 1981 photo of Christo was unlike any other she had taken before (or would take in the future). Whereas most of her photos seek to clearly display the subject to the viewer, this one entirely obscured him from view.

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Photo Courtesy: Paolo Gianfrate/YouTube

The subject was Christo, a fellow artist who often created his art pieces by wrapping things in fabric. So, what did he do for his portrait with Leibovitz? He wrapped himself in fabric, of course. The viewers can't see Christo at all and simply have to trust that it is indeed him.

Michael Jackson

Just when it seems like the list of famous celebrities photographed by Leibovitz can't get any longer, we have the king of pop himself: Michael Jackson. This wasn't just a one-time deal, either — Leibovitz captured Jackson on more than one occasion.

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Perhaps the most famous of her Jackson photographs is the one that graced the cover of a 1989 Vanity Fair. In it, Jackson has on a white button-down shirt that is open halfway, and he's leaning into a strong gust of wind. Drama is the overwhelming theme in this iconic image.

Keith Richards

When Louis Vuitton went with Keith Richards as a model for one of the brand’s ads, who did they turn to as the photographer? None other than Annie Leibovitz, of course. She captured Richards' hard-rocking personality perfectly in what was his first-ever gig in an advertising campaign.

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For those who are unaware, Richards is a member of the famous band The Rolling Stones. Back in the day, he embodied the trope of the sex, drugs and rock & roll musician. Instead of trying to obscure the marks his lifestyle had left on his body, Leibovitz let it shine in all its glory.

Ellen DeGeneres

Most photographers would be hard-pressed to capture the energy and spirit of a powerhouse comedian like Ellen DeGeneres, but Annie Leibovitz did an impressive job of it in a 1997 shoot for the American Portraiture Exhibit. DeGeneres posed in a bikini top with her face painted white and a cigarette hanging out of her mouth.

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Those who are accustomed to seeing DeGeneres on-screen might doubt whether it's even her. This is exactly the strength of Leibovitz's work. She knows how to depict well-known figures in an intimate, all-together new atmosphere.

Sean Connery

Annie Leibovitz has a knack for capturing actors in a finely curated light that reflects — and enhances — their public persona. This is what she did for Sean Connery in a Louis Vuitton advertisement. The dashing actor in his 70s casually sits on a dock on a pristine beach.

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He has his partially wet pants rolled up and is squinting off into the distance in true James Bond style. Despite the seemingly simple set-up of the photograph, it wasn't the easiest one to capture. Heavy equipment had to be held above the water.

Sting

The 1980’s star Sting was photographed by Annie Lebovitz in 1985. He was the lead singer of the wildly popular band The Police and is the voice behind many hit songs, including "Every Breath You Take" and "Roxanne." His picture is unlike any other celebrity's portrait.

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First, Sting is standing in the middle of the desert — flamingo-like on just one leg. He has shed his clothes and opted to slather mud all over his body instead. The meaning behind such a pose and setting? Only Sting and Leibovitz will ever know the true answer.

Where Is She Now?

Annie Leibovitz's family is a loving, albeit nontraditional, one. She had her eldest daughter at the age of 51 and went on to have two more daughters via surrogate mothers. This unorthodox path to motherhood has left her with a full family that keeps her quite busy.

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She doesn't have any current partners — at least not publicly — but she seems to be doing well at the age of 70. These days she lives and works in New York City, where her creative ideas are still flowing as strong as ever.

Living Legend

With a resume that reads like an all-star line-up, Annie Leibovitz is a photographer that will go down in history. Her portraits have shocked and awed audiences across the country, and her approach to art is one that many seek to emulate.

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Having overcome poignant loss and financial hardship during her life, she is also a woman with an inspiring story. In the end, this is why others will follow in her footsteps. Just as Leibovitz has sought to capture great women in her photographs, she has proven to be one herself.