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Annie Leibovitz on Nine Assignments that Shaped Her Career

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Annie Leibovitz. Photo via Getty Images.
Annie Leibovitz. Photo via Getty Images.

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Last night at NYC's 92Y, acclaimed photographer Annie Leibovitz reflected on some of the most important shoots of her life. Dressed in a back suit, with her silver hair hanging loose, the 64-year-old legend discussed her beginnings with the New Yorker's Adam Gopnik, explaining how her inexperience during the early days of Rolling Stone helped her develop her photo style.

"When I started to sit people for portraits for cover of Rolling Stone, we began making appointments, instead of just hanging around [with the subjects]," Leibovtiz, whose intimate portraits of celebrities defined the magazine in the seventies, said. "I wasn't a really good director and people would show up and say, 'what should we do?' And I would say, 'I don't know? Sit over there?' So I had to do something."

Over her 30-some years in the industry, Leibovitz has photographed some of the most iconic figures in art, politics, music, and film—including John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Queen Elizabeth, George Bush and Michael Jackson. She's also behind many controversial shoots, including one featuring a then-15-year-old Miley Cyrus nude in 2008 for the front cover of Vanity Fair, a move that resulted in outrage from parents. She also lensed that recent Kimye Vogue cover.

Here are the nine assignments that were pivotal to her photography career.

Nixon's helicopter leaving the White House in 1972. Photo by Annie Leibovitz.

1. President Nixon's last day in office: Leibovitz was on the scene at the White House the day President Richard Nixon resigned from office in 1974. She said all the other photographers had put down their cameras at that point, but she was looking to capture moments before or after "the moment."

"I was out there with the White House press squad, and after his helicopter took off, and the carpet rolled up, [everyone was done.] This wasn't a photograph that others were taking, but I continued to take pictures," she said. Laughing at the backstory, Leiboviz explained that Rolling Stone, at the time, was waiting on for infamous gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson to file a piece. When he never turned it in, the editors from Rolling Stone took Leibovitz's photos and spread them across the pages designated for Thompson.

2. Following the Rolling Stones on Tour: After working at Rolling Stone for 10 years, Leibovitz accepted a job from Mick Jagger to work as the official tour photographer for The Rolling Stones—against the advice of her boss, Jann Wenner. Leibovitz said when she went on tour with the Rolling Stones, "it took me eight years to get off of it."

"With my own issues, at the time, I thought, 'if you're a really good journalist, you become part of what you're doing, that's the best way to take photos.' But what a stupid idea! Since then, I'm extremely careful about where I place myself. You don't want to lose yourself."

Leibovitz caught some of the most intimate moments of the band on camera, and while she doesn't regret those years, she said "there's a certain high price to pay in being that engaged."

Artist Keith Haring, camouflaged. Photo by Annie Leibovitz.

3. Conceptual portraits of artists: After leaving the Rolling Stones, Leibovitz returned to shooting magazine covers, and began to develop her own sense of style. Instead of plain portraits, Leibovitz would create pun-like images with her subjects; she shot actress Bette Midler in a bed of roses, for example, after she starred in the 1979 film The Rose.

"It was the beginning of understanding the potential of conceptual photograph. I was trying to address their poetry in their portrait, and suddenly, it just clicked. HA! That the set-up portrait could have a story to it," Leibovitz explained.

Leibovitz showed a portrait she took of actor Steve Martin against a Franz Kline painting, which she hired a Disney scenic painter to paint on his rented tuxedo. Although that Rolling Stone had the worst sales that year because Martin wasn't recognizable—Wenner only wanted head-shots after that—Leibovitz continued to morph her style. In 1987, she photographed artist Keith Haring by camouflaging his body with a mural he painted on Salvation Army furniture.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono, taken by Annie Leibovitz on the day Lennon was shot.

Leibovitz also displayed a photo she took of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, which covered Rolling Stone shortly after he was murdered. Leibovitz described herself as being "perplexed" with the photos after, but said some shoots just figure themselves out.

"The '80s were not a romantic time and I asked [John and Yoko] to crawl up together. I wanted them both to be naked, but Yoko wouldn't take off her pants so I said, 'why don't you keep everything on?' In those days, you pull a Polaroid and the three of us knew right away it was good," she said. "I was sent to get John for the cover, not Yoko, because there was still a lot of resentment [towards her]. But when I got there, John said he wanted Yoko on the cover... When he was killed, I went to Rolling Stone and they were mocking up the film. I told them the story and so they put that photo on the cover."

Susan Sontag shot by Annie Leibovitz in Paris.

4. Portraits of Susan Sontag: Leibovitz said some of her most important work was a series of photos she took of her partner, essayist Susan Sontag. She said Sontag had extremely high expectations for the photos, which Leibovitz found frustrating. After Sontag died of Myelodysplastic syndrome in 2004, Leibovitz looked back at photos and said she was proud.

"I realized I was sort of going out every day going out doing assignments but there was other parts of my life that I was photographing," she said.

Showing a photo she took of Sontag in Paris by the river, Leibovitz said it was especially hard to photograph people she was intimate with.

"I had this idealistic idea of what Susan could imagine her portrait to be, but I found her to have an attitude of wanting to look good. That was heartbreaking to me, I thought she'd want to be strong [looking] but she didn't want to be that. That happens when you know people very well, you know how they want to see themselves, and it can be very difficult."

Dancers Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rob Besserer. Photo by Annie Leibovitz.

5. Dancing Series: In 1990, Leibovitz spent three weeks in Florida shooting dancers, including Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rob Besserer. Leibovitz had been approached to photograph several dancers, and ended up staying on the project for three weeks because dancing reminded her of her mother.

"My mother was a dancer, and taught dancing, so I grew up with dance. So you can imagine what it would have been in my work to photograph dance," she said. "[For these photos] Misha's knees were not in the best shape."

A showgirl in Las Vegas. Photo by Annie Leibovitz

6. Photos for the "Women" book: Sontag originally presented Leibovitz with an idea to shoot women, but Leibovitz said the topic was too broad. She then flew to Las Vegas to shoot showgirls, and said she developed an idea to photograph the women she saw, before and after, in costume.

"The idea was that we didn't see what we looked like. [It was] transformation. That was a whole other idea, a decisive moment in shifting into conceptual work here. [For these photos] the camera couldn't contain it."

Susan Sontag, during her illness, flying back from Seattle. Photo by Annie Leibovitz.

7. Photos of her father and Susan Sontag dying: Leibovitz took many photos of her father and Sontag deteriorating through their illnesses. She said she liked to compare these images to photos of her three daughters, to contrast life and death.

Abraham Lincoln's gloves. Photo by Annie Leibovitz

8. "Pilgrimage" abstract series: While Leibovitz stuck with portrait photography most of her life, she did catalog abstract images that belonged to iconic historical figures, including Abraham Lincoln's leather gloves, Virginia Wolf's writing table, Marian Anderson's dress, and Emily Dickinson's house.

"[This was about] going out on a walk-about, trying to make sense of things, without people in the pictures. The personalities are there," she said. "This was done with Susan in mind, because she loved to travel. It started out with a list of places and turned into objects and I found myself drawn into a new sense of imagery that was really beautiful."

Author Maurice Sendak for Vanity Fair, taken by Annie Leibovitz in 2011.

9. Portrait of Maurice Sendak: Pointing to some of her current work, Leibovitz displayed a photo of American author Maurice Sendak she took for Vanity Fair in 2011. She used the image as an example of how she spends time with a subject—sometimes all day—to find the right conversation and setting for a portrait.

"Maurice loved to talk about dying, so we talked about dying all day long. I'm not afraid to come forward and be direct. It's not awkward. it's stimulating, I like to get it out of the way. It's something that's hanging there so sometimes I'll just bring it up right away. [For this photo], I said, 'it'll be like your heading towards the light!'