Born in Waterbury, Connecticut, Annie Leibovitz is the third of six children. She is a third-generation American whose great-grandparents were Jewish immigrants, from Central and Eastern Europe. Her father’s parents had emigrated from Romania. Her mother, Marilyn Leibovitz, was a modern dance instructor of Estonian Jewish heritage; her father, Sam Leibovitz, was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force. The family moved frequently with her father’s duty assignments, and she took her first pictures when he was stationed in the Philippines during the Vietnam War. In high school, she became interested in various artistic endeavors, and began to write and play music. She attended the San Francisco Art Institute, where she studied painting. For several years, she continued to develop her photography skills while working various jobs, including a stint on a kibbutz in Amir, Israel, for several months in 1969.
When Leibovitz returned to the United States in 1970, she started her career as staff photographer, working for the just launched Rolling Stone magazine. In 1973, publisher Jann Wenner named Leibovitz chief photographer of Rolling Stone, a job she would hold for 10 years. Leibovitz worked for the magazine until 1983, and her intimate photographs of celebrities helped define the Rolling Stone look. While working for Rolling Stone, Leibovitz became more aware of the other magazines. Richard Avedon’s portraits were an important and powerful example in her life. She learned that you can work for magazines and still do your own personal work, which for her was the most important thing. It is much more intimate and tells a story for her as she works with people who love her and who will “Open their hearts and souls and lives to you.”
Photographers such as Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson influenced her during her time at the San Francisco Art Institute. “Their style of personal reportage – taken in a graphic way – was what we were taught to emulate.” Leibovitz photographed The Rolling Stones in San Francisco in 1971 and 1972, and served as the concert-tour photographer for Rolling Stones Tour of the Americas ’75. Her favorite photo from the tour was a photo of Mick Jagger in an elevator.
On December 8, 1980, Leibovitz had a photo shoot with John Lennon for Rolling Stone, promising him that he would make the cover. She had initially tried to get a picture with just Lennon alone, which is what Rolling Stone wanted, but Lennon insisted that both he and Yoko Ono be on the cover. Leibovitz then tried to re-create something like the kissing scene from the Double Fantasy album cover, a picture that she loved. She had John remove his clothes and curl up next to Yoko. Leibovitz recalls, “What is interesting is she said she’d take her top off and I said, ‘Leave everything on’ — not really preconceiving the picture at all. Then he curled up next to her and it was very, very strong. You couldn’t help but feel that she was cold and he looked like he was clinging on to her. I think it was amazing to look at the first Polaroid and they were both very excited. John said, ‘You’ve captured our relationship exactly. Promise me it’ll be on the cover.’ I looked him in the eye and we shook on it.” Leibovitz was the last person to professionally photograph Lennon—he was shot and killed five hours later. The photograph was subsequently re-created in 2009 by John and Yoko’s son Sean Lennon, posing with his girlfriend Charlotte Kemp Muhl, with male/female roles reversed (Sean clothed, Kemp naked), and by Henry Bond and Sam Taylor-Wood in their YBA pastiche October 26, 1993.