Only four years ago, a shy fledgling photographer named Annie Leibovitz had to be dragged down to Rolling Stone’s editorial offices to hawk her picture of joint-toking poet Allen Ginsberg at a San Francisco peace demonstration. Stone “flipped out,” as Annie remembers it. So began a professional relationship in which Leibovitz—now as “chief photographer”—has gained unique access to rock and counterculture heavies. Today, with books and galleries anthologizing her star-studded portraiture, Annie Leibovitz at 5’11” stands with becoming modesty at the pinnacle of photography’s equivalent of the “new journalism”—candid portraits meant to interpret as well as document.
Like many 25-year-olds of lesser accomplishment, Leibovitz apologizes that she hasn’t “settled into a life-style yet.” And a spilling closet at one end of her otherwise barren San Francisco loft advertises existential indecision ranging from the standard denim to natty suits à la mode.
An Air Force brat reared round the world, she still fancied herself a painter as late as her junior year at the San Francisco Art Institute. That summer Annie rejoined her parents stationed in Japan and acquired a Minolta “with cheaper lenses than other cameras…because I never intended to become a professional.”
Soon hooked despite herself, Leibovitz talked the Institute into approving a year in Europe and Israel. Five months at an Israeli kibbutz—and a romantic interlude with a young rabbi—left Leibovitz convinced she was too inured in her American ways to expatriate for good. “Israel is a place for people who have no place left to go,” she decided. She returned to the Institute’s photography program. During her final year, she recalls, she so immersed herself in darkroom chemicals that “I smelted like ‘hypo’ and my fingernails turned brown.” That spring the chance encounter with Ginsberg launched her career.
Single, free-flying and with an un-apologetic passion for the powders and pills of social drug-taking, Annie’s real tonic is work. On a hint from Ron Ziegler that she might get a shutterful of Nixon, Leibovitz flew to Washington—just in time to record Nixon’s final departure. In general, she finds that wringing personality from a celebrity entails a subtle reciprocity on her part. “You are a human being first,” she reminds herself when confronting a subject, “and that’s more important than your pictures, that’s the real art form.”
David Cassidy in the nude, Nixon walking his last red carpet, Mick Jagger as an evil faun, Norman Mailer brooding, Salvador Dali cheek-to-cheek with Alice Cooper, Daniel Ellsberg’s bald spot peeping through a stylish brush cut—all are portraits by Annie Leibovitz, many displayed in a current Manhattan exhibition. They fuzz the line that once separated photojournalism from willfully subjective interpretations. Relying on her perception more heavily than on her equipment, Annie’s only sleight of hand is that “I encourage people to take my vision for reality.”
“She is a new eye,” asserts Rolling Stone’s sticklish editor-founder Jann Wenner. “She sees things in a slightly different way.” For a while, new eye or not, both editor and photographer were seeing such things as who retained rights to her oeuvre in slightly different ways. After early contretemps over her first cover portrait of John Lennon, Leibovitz now controls all her negatives. “Let’s just say Jann and I understand one another better now,” proposes Annie, who is close friends with Wenner and his wife. “When I take my pictures, I’m working for myself. I’m never told what to do or what to take. Whenever I shoot for someone else, I mess up.”