Before she became the darling of Vanity Fair and Vogue, Annie Leibovitz, 67, spent 13 years on the staff of Rolling Stone magazine, taking simple, spontaneous photos of anything from rock concerts to political rallies. Her talent elevated photo reportage to an art form, and after three years she was promoted to chief photographer on the cult publication that would be defined by her cool, elegant and often black and white images – a far cry from the glossy, stylized concept-driven shots she would later become synonymous with.
Now, an exhibition: Annie Leibovitz: The Early Years: 1970-1983 at the Luma art center in Arles in southern France, presents a collection of more than 2,000 of her photos charting what happened after this precocious young photographer approached Robert Kingsburg, the artistic director of Rolling Stone, for a job. It was 1970, San Francisco, and the magazine was a bible of hippie counterculture, while Leibovitz was little more than a teenager who had studied art by day and photography by night after returning from volunteering on a kibbutz in Israel.
A reporter always wants to find out what’s going on behind the scenes Annie Leibovitz
She had no experience, but Kingsburg recognized her potential and snapped her up. Several weeks later, she had notched up her first photo credit on a portrait of the poet Allen Ginsberg smoking marijuana with a young man in a turban. She went on to photograph the McGovern and Carter presidential campaigns, as well as producing portraits of Andy Warhol, Jack Nicholson, Jane Fonda, Patti Smith, Roman Polanski, Muhammad Ali and Dalí and other 1970s icons.
“The exhibition is a lesson for the young photographer,” she says. “It shows the kind of energy and work needed to get anywhere.”
Leibovitz also worked with some of Rolling Stone’s most prestigious writers, such as Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe. “[Thompson] wrote his articles while drinking in bars. People thought he was just a friendly guy but in reality he was working,” she says.
When it comes to Tom Wolfe, she says: “He always wore a suit but he never sweated.”
In many respects, Leibovitz was ahead of her time and her techniques, which were unusual then, have since been widely adopted. “During the electoral campaigns, I photographed the people surrounding the candidates,” she explains. “It’s something we see all the time now. A reporter always wants to find out what’s going on behind the scenes.”
For five or six years my work was atrocious Annie Leibovitz
The exhibition also captures her outstanding photo reportage of Nixon’s resignation. As Leibovitz had no access to the president himself, she captured the essence of the event with details, such as a group of soldiers rolling up the carpet after Nixon had departed the White House.
But some of her most memorable photos are of the Rolling Stones on tour, an extended period of hedonism that landed her in rehab, but not before she had zoomed in on the magnetic sensuality of Mick Jagger. “It took me eight years to leave the tour,” she says. “It almost killed me, but I survived.”
In 1977, Rolling Stone founder Jann Wener believed San Francisco had become a cultural backwater and decided to switch his headquarters to New York. “It was a difficult move for everyone,” says Leibovitz, who found it hard to sleep and spent her nights driving around in her car until she would run out of gas.
Driving became a Leibovitz motif and many of her subjects are photographed in their cars – Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner, Peter Falk, Brian Wilson, Norman Mailer and the actor Tommy Lee Jones. There’s even a shot of Mick Jagger driving the wrong way along the highway.
The exhibition evokes nostalgia and Leibovitz admits that hours before it opened, she shed several tears as she went round it alone. “I still dream about California,” she says, adding that the writer – and one of her subjects – Joan Didion could have written about her uprooting.
John Lennon appears somewhere toward the end of the exhibition. He is naked and lying in a fetal position, embraced by Yoko Ono on the floor of his apartment in the Dakota building. It’s probably her best-known photograph, taken five hours before Lennon’s assassination. “I wanted them both naked but Yoko refused,” she says. “When I took the photo John told me, ‘You’ve captured our relationship exactly.’ Just hours later, he was dead.”
It was December 1980. After his death, the picture became an icon. “It’s fascinating how news can change the way you see a photograph,” says Leibovitz. She would never be so crass is to choose it as her favorite but it’s obviously special to her. “A good photograph is one that stirs personal feelings and experiences in whoever is looking at it,” she says.
Lennon’s death was a turning point for Leibovitz. The 1970s were over and the brave, slightly innocent optimism of those years would be replaced by the cynicism of the 1980s, with Ronald Reagan in the White House imposing his neoliberal ideas on the United States and the world.
Leibovitz left Rolling Stone in 1983 to work for a number of other magazines, closing the door on an era. It was, she says, inevitable: “I was living for the next assignment, with an empty fridge, full of obsession and energy. I felt I couldn’t live like that for much longer.”
Post-Rolling Stone, Leibovitz started to experiment with different styles, a prelude to her spectacular portraits for Vanity Fair and Vogue. There is evidence of it creeping into her work toward 1983 – a portrait collection of poets including Tess Gallagher and Robert Pen Warren captures some of the turbulence of their inner worlds.
But Leibovitz readily admits it was a difficult period in her career. “For five or six years my work was atrocious,” she says. “I still find it difficult to look at it. I think I’m best at photo reportage. I’m not a great studio photographer. I’m not like Irving Penn or Richard Avedon, who were masters at studio work. I think of myself as more of an observer.”
English version by Heather Galloway.