The Last Word: Annie Leibovitz Looks Back on a Legendary Career

On her classic Rolling Stone shoots, learning from her heroes and changing rock & roll photography

What advice do you wish you could give your younger self?
I don't think I could give advice to my younger self because she probably wouldn't listen.

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How did you get involved with Rolling Stone?
Between my second and third years at the San Francisco Art Institute, I went to Israel to work on a kibbutz, not knowing for sure that I would come back. My boyfriend at the time got me a subscription to Rolling Stone, and I read every issue from cover to cover. It was the only news I had of the U.S. Then, I did go back to school and went into the Rolling Stone offices with some pictures of a demonstration against the war in Vietnam and some photographs I had taken in Israel. San Francisco was a hotbed of activism then. Rolling Stone put one of my demonstration pictures on the cover.

You were going out on assignment for Rolling Stone pretty quickly after that. How did you feel?
It sounds exciting, but no one at school thought it was a good thing. Photography was taught as an art. You weren't supposed to sell anything. The other students looked at me with disdain. I felt alone – very alone. In the long run, that tension was actually good for the work. I used the assignment experience to build on what I knew about becoming an artist. I would walk into all these different worlds and just take photographs of things that were interesting to me. I honestly didn't know how to do anything else. I wasn't particularly ambitious. I just loved what photography is.

The camera gave you a license to go out in the world with a purpose.

What did your family think about that first cover picture? Your father was a career Air Force officer.
He never said anything. I wish he was alive to talk about it. The Ken Burns series on Vietnam has brought that time back for my family. We're talking about it now. My father was stationed at Clark Air Base in the Philippines, which had a hospital where they brought casualties straight from the battlefield. My mother was kind of a sophisticated bohemian, and my father was in the military to make a living.

They had six children, and it was the only thing he knew how to do. Then, at the Art Institute, I was studying with a lot of crazed Vietnam vets who were there on the GI Bill. One of my classmates who had been in Vietnam said that he had stopped using his gun after a while. He just got stoned and took pictures. It was a surreal and confusing time.

Who were your heroes?
The first photographers I admired were [Henri] Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank. I remember looking at their pictures and realizing what it meant to be a photographer. The camera gave you a license to go out in the world with a purpose. I was also looking at the work of Life magazine photojournalists.

There was riveting photojournalism coming out of Vietnam. Larry Burrows' pictures are so strong and tender. They are etched in my mind today. As time went on, I found myself embracing and learning from Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Helmut Newton, Diane Arbus. And then there were the extraordinary writers I got to work with at Rolling Stone. Hunter S. Thompson was inventing gonzo journalism. I was with Tom Wolfe at the launch of Apollo 17, which led him to The Right Stuff.

Was it hard to leave Rolling Stone?
I was scared when I went to Condé Nast. I had heard horror stories about how they used you up and then spit you out and went on. But there was this great history of photography that had been done there.

I understood early on, maybe because I looked at all those photography books, that people had careers. I was looking at people like [Edward] Weston and Dorothea Lange and [Edward] Steichen, and even [Alfred] Stieglitz, who did their work over a long lifetime. It was clear to me as a young person that this wasn't something that I would do for a while and then do something else. Magazines have given me the structure that I need personally. And I realized that almost all of the photographers that I admired had some commercial experience that was tied to whatever their work as "art" actually was.

Did your work change?
I'm by nature an observer. I'm still sort of taking those reportage pictures in my head – what I might have seen in the early days at Rolling Stone – and translating them into something more formal.

Who was your greatest role model?
Maybe Avedon. His studio work is especially brilliant. He has such a great understanding of the psychology of the portrait. He was a master of that territory. It was a real rite of passage for Rolling Stone when they ran "The Family" [October 21st, 1976], the whole issue devoted to Avedon's portraits of the American power elite. The magazine was coming to terms with the power of a still photograph. I'll never forget that. Everyone talks about the John and Yoko picture being an important moment, but I think that the "Family" issue was an extraordinary publishing tour de force.