Liebovitz, Annie (1949—)

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Liebovitz, Annie (1949—)

From her first assignments for Rolling Stone in the early 1970s to her defining images of celebrity found in Vanity Fair since 1983, Annie Liebovitz has changed the way Americans see the twentieth century. Capturing both the glamorous and the banal sides of celebrity, she has also transformed the way other photographers have captured the twentieth century on film. For three decades, Liebovitz has crafted an image of the twentieth century as the American century, indelibly marked by a fascination with celebrity.

Liebovitz purchased her first camera while studying painting at the San Francisco Art Institute in the late 1960s. Early on, family photographs—her own and others—were strong influences on her work. The power of the camera to encapsulate and communicate family histories drew her to documentary photography and to the work of, among others, the great American photographers Margaret Bourke-White and Robert Frank.

While a student, Liebovitz spent a semester in a work-study program on a kibbutz in Israel. During her stay, a friend gave her a subscription to Rolling Stone magazine and, upon her return to San Francisco, she met with art director Robert Kingsbury to show him her photographs. Kingsbury was enthralled with her images of ladders in the kibbutz's fields and equally impressed with pictures of an anti-war demonstration she had shot in San Francisco the day before. In 1970 he published some of Liebovitz's kibbutz images in Rolling Stone's photo gallery. Later in the year he published the anti-war pictures and began to give Liebovitz regular assignments. In 1973, Liebovitz was named Rolling Stone's chief photographer.

Liebovitz learned her greatest lesson about photographing celebrities during her first out-of-town shoot for Rolling Stone with John Lennon. She was a young, green magazine photographer with a deadline. He was a legend, a musician whose melodies had given him everlasting fame, but he was also normal, just an everyday guy asking her what she'd like him to do. From that moment on, as Liebovitz remembers in the introduction to her 1990 book, Portraits, she got involved with a photo, allowing her own point of view and experiences to shape the picture's gut.

As Lennon shaped Liebovitz's approach to celebrity photography, Liebovitz shaped our enduring memory of Lennon. On December 8, 1980, she returned to New York to again shoot Lennon for Rolling Stone. She posed him nude, curled up in the fetal position next to his wife Yoko Ono. We sense his love for Ono and his attachment to her. Only hours after this shoot, John Lennon was assassinated outside his apartment building. Suddenly, Liebovitz's picture, published in the January 1981 issue of Rolling Stone became imbued with deeper meaning and resonance.

A year later Liebovitz photographed Ono at Strawberry Field, Central Park, New York City. Dwarfed by trees in a field named after one of the Beatles' most famous songs, a black clad Ono appears small and alone. It is as if Ono and Liebovitz had to create another image together in order to bring closure to the events of December 1980. The photograph is haunting. Moreover, it is haunted by our memory of the picture of Ono and Lennon, perhaps one of the most enduring images of the 1980s.

When the Rolling Stones invited Liebovitz to photograph their concert tour in 1975, Liebovitz created the original "behind-the-scenes" show-all. Her images revealed the working world of rock and roll: Mick Jagger on stage, so thin as to be nearly transparent (Liebovitz told an interviewer in 1990 that Jagger lost about 10 pounds during each performance and she had wanted to capture not only the energy on-stage, but also the way spent energy looked); Jagger in make-up; Jagger in a terry cloth robe with his hair wrapped in a turban; Jagger, Keith Richards, and the rest of the band, traveling, playing, resting, and working. Rock and roll, we learned, is not all high living. Massive performances require strenuous efforts to produce. Seeing the inner workings of a Stones concert enabled readers to see less glamorous parts of the legendary group's success.

When Condé Nast Publications reintroduced its glamorous Vanity Fair in 1983, Annie Liebovitz became the magazine's first contributing photographer. In a milestone year, Liebovitz also published her first book and had her first exhibition. She became one of an elite club—a magazine photographer accepted by the art world, herself a celebrity due to her photographs of celebrities.

In her tenure at Vanity Fair, Liebovitz has continued to define celebrity and portraiture. Her images are among the most memorable in the magazine's history, including Whoopi Goldberg in a bathtub full of milk (1984), Diane Keaton dancing around Liebovitz's studio (1987), and Demi Moore's elegant pregnant, nude cover (1988). Liebovitz has immortalized Hollywood's stars, often showing their more private side. In her pictures of Arnold Schwarzenegger (June, 1997), Leonardo di Caprio (January 1998), and Brad Pitt (February 1995 and November 1998), for instance, Liebovitz shows vulnerable men and handsome hunks. She has also immortalized other celebrities, including President Bill Clinton (March, 1993, and November, 1997). Liebovitz's time at Vanity Fair has been punctuated by her annual December Hall of Fame, which highlight Americans (celebri-ties and not) who made the year special. And, since 1995, she has created Hollywood covers and portfolios each March that are perhaps more eagerly awaited than the Academy Awards they honor.

Liebovitz's celebrity portraiture has appeared in advertising, first in a campaign for American Express—with unforgettable, seemingly candid shots of Ella Fitzgerald and Sammy Davis, Jr., among others—and for the Gap, featuring black and white portraits of celebrities wearing their favorite staples from a retailer that defines American popular fashion.

Liebovitz is a magazine photographer, shooting commissioned photographs on a deadline. She has, unlike some of her contemporaries, worked within the conventions of magazine photography, rarely testing limits, except perhaps those of the imagination. And yet, her commercial photography always bears her personal mark, her distinct vision of celebrity and of our world. She is a fan of her subjects, but in the 1990s, she is also one of them—a celebrity photographer of celebrities. However, Liebovitz, again unlike her contemporaries, rarely photographs herself. She feels so personally defined by the way she sees the world through the camera, that she cannot imagine herself on the other side of it. This modesty, settled comfortably amidst the power of her art and the fame of her images, makes Liebovitz an uncommon celebrity at the end of the twentieth century.

—Ilene S. Goldman

Further Reading:

Liebovitz, Annie. Photographs Annie Liebovitz, 1970-1990. New York, Harper Collins, 1991.

Rolling Stone, 1973-83.

Vanity Fair, from 1983.