The Photo Issue
Our greatest rock & roll photography — by Richard Avedon, David LaChapelle, Annie Leibovitz, Herb Ritts, Mark Seliger, Theo Wenner, Baron Wolman and more
Our greatest rock & roll photography — by Richard Avedon, David LaChapelle, Annie Leibovitz, Herb Ritts, Mark Seliger, Theo Wenner, Baron Wolman and more
On the first day of this shoot in Australia, Kurt Cobain showed up sporting a shirt with a different handcrafted message: “The Grateful Dead Still Sucks.” Seliger told him to wear whatever he wanted, “But let’s not have a lot of writing. It competes with the headlines.” The next day, Cobain responded with a jibe directed at the magazine, and an instant classic was created. Read more.
This was a save. Ritts flew to Tokyo in 1987 planning to snap photos of Madonna all over town, but screaming fans mobbing the Japanese leg of the “Who’s That Girl” made that impossible. So the decision was made to simply shoot the pop star in the bed of her hotel room. Read more.
The Slim Shady LP had just arrived, and the concept of this photo for Eminem’s first Rolling Stone cover story — shot in New York in March of 1999 — was as simple as it was provocative: “He was about to blow up,” remembered photographer LaChapelle. Read more.
Shot in Bono’s New York hotel room in 1993, with the singer playing the Fly, the character he created for Achtung Baby. “There were reports of egomania,” Bono told Rolling Stone, “and I just decided to become everything they said I was. Might as well. The truth is that you are many people at the same time, and you don’t have to choose.” Read more.
This classic image was shot at a Baltimore tour stop for the chart topping Antichrist Superstar. “The cover came out on my birthday,” Manson remembered. “And we did listen to the Dr. Hook song ‘Cover of the Rolling Stone,’ and there were drugs snorted off the cover.” Read more.
In May of 2007, Winehouse had just married Blake Fielder-Civil in Miami when Vadukal shot her there in her hotel room. “She's in her own world,” says Vadukual, “surrounded by this omnipresent light.” But the calm did not extend beyond this photo. A fidgety Winehouse bolted from a photo studio later that day after just 15 minutes of shooting for the cover. Read more.
Mark Seliger proposed turning the band into literal red-hots by covering them with body paint. Flea painted half his face red, then thought “it looked stupid.” “They were 100 percent right,” says Seliger, who adds that in this cover shot, the Chilis “were so naked that we had to retouch out some of their pubic hair.” Read more.
The Rolling Stones frontman was shot in London for the magazine’s 20th anniversary issue. “The best rock & roll music encapsulates a certain high energy — an angriness — whether on record or onstage. That is, rock & roll is only rock & roll if it’s not safe.” Read more.
Seliger wanted to play off Rock’s white-trash hell-raiser persona: “What if he was carving totems in the woods with a chainsaw. What would he be making? A bear? A statue of a great rebel? No – a stripper!” Rock loved the concept — less so the shoot in the Michigan woods: “It was cold as balls,” he remembered. “Freezing.” Read more.
Shakur showed up at Clinch’s downtown New York loft in the summer of 1993 without an entourage — just one friend. “He was very focused,” Clinch says. The portrait captures Shakur’s contemplative side, while his tattoos tell another story. “There’s a quietness and soulfulness he was putting forth that’s in that photo,” Clinch says. Read more.
Gaga and Richardson kicked an image from the “Alejandro” video up a notch in this cover shot: more gun, less clothing. Richardson, Gaga said in the forward to a photo book she and Richardson began collaborating on shortly after this shoot, inspired her “to feel it is OK to view yourself as hyper-human.” Read more.
Guns N' Roses were already in the midst of the massive Use Your Illusion tour in June of 1991, when Ritts shot this photo. “We're competing with rock legends,” Rose said in a September cover story, timed to the release of the two Illusion albums. “And we're trying to do the best we can to possibly be honored with a position like that.” Read more.
For her third Rolling Stone cover, Wenner wanted a simple, stripped-down look – one that drew its power directly from Adele. When complimented on the results, Adele replied with a Beyoncé reference – “I woke up like this” – and let loose one of her distinctive belly laughs. Read more.
Taken hours before John Lennon was assassinated outside his New York apartment building, this image is the best-known photograph in the magazine’s history – and perhaps the most famous magazine cover ever. Leibovitz spent two afternoons photographing the couple at their home. When she showed Lennon a Polaroid of this shot, he said, “You’ve captured our relationship exactly.” Read more.
Letterman’s fourth Rolling Stone cover marked his departure from NBC for CBS. “It was a very short session,” remembered Seliger. “I pushed him to exaggerate a little bit more here and there, and it was a real kind of momentum crescendo. I heard when he finally saw the cover he was like, ‘Oh no! I look like a trout!’” Read more.
This photo was shot on June 20th, 1976, Wilson’s 34th birthday — and his first time in the ocean since a near-drowning incident four years earlier. He was filming a skit with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd for a Beach Boys TV special co-produced by Lorne Michaels. “My belly doesn't look that big because I have my robe on,” remembered Wilson. “But believe me, it's big!" Read more.
In the summer of 2008 Obama had just secured the Democratic nomination. He sat talking about the background music at this shoot (the Grateful Dead), and asked who had been on the cover the most (Bob Dylan). “It was the perfect storm,” Yang says, “the right picture, the right magazine, the movement.” Read more.
“Holy Roller religious people made such a big deal about that photo,” Spears said in 2006 of her first Rolling Stone cover, shot when she was 17 in her bedroom at home in Kentwood, Louisiana “I thought [it] was a good representation of who I really am.” Read more.
The first of the magazine’s three Seinfeld covers turned the cast into a metal band – Seliger calls it “a cross between Mötley Crüe and a leather bar.” Of Jerry Seinfeld’s Freddie Mercury-like hip-thrusting pose, Seliger says, “Once he signed on, it was 200 percent. No hesitation. It’s all full-on.” Read more.
It was a warm September day in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Springsteen was rehearsing with the E Street Band at Convention Hall, and had his vintage Ford Mustang brought around to the boardwalk. Vadukal shot one or two rolls of film, including this shot. “It was over in a second,” he says. “But you don't need many great photographs. Just one.” Read more.
Streep – disenchanted with the movie business – “wanted to disappear,” remembered Leibovitz. The photographer had white grease paint on hand from a James Taylor shoot that never went through. “She was really happy with that, because she could hide herself.” Read more.
Pitt spent three days road tripping through Mexico with Seliger and then-photo editor Jodi Peckman. “He wanted it to be an event,” remembered Seliger. He didn’t want to pose shirtless, but Peckman told him a head shot would look better if his neck was bare. Pitt is holding his shirt in his right hand because he thought it was out of frame. Read more.
The outrageous get ups started out tongue-in-cheek. “The songs that I was performing weren’t the sort of songs that you’d expect anyone to come in wearing a costume to, ‘cause they were very moody songs,” John told the magazine. But then he began to like it, and never stopped. “Even at sound checks, I’m a little glamorous.” Read more.
This cover was shot at the former Stuyvesant High School on Manhattan’s East 15th Street. Instead of suiting up as a teammate, Adam Yauch dressed as a referee, and put on a wig and glasses. Seliger worried he wouldn’t be recognizable. Yauch’s response: “I think the fact that I’m standing between Adam [Horovitz] and Mike [D] is going to be a pretty big clue.” Read more.
Prince’s first Rolling Stone cover was shot by Avedon five days before Christmas in 1982. The cover itself featured Prince and Vanity; as he tucked his left hand in his jeans, she snaked her right hand into his waistband. This photo captured his sly, sexy essence with more power, as he focused attention on his mouth and crotch all on his own. Read more.
Seliger had an image in his mind: Young in a desert landscape. But the shoot was in Chicago, in November of 1991. “I asked if I could throw a fan on the back of his hair, to create this vibration — an experience of sound through a visual means,” Seliger says. This “one perfect frame” captured the feeling Seliger had imagined. Read more.
The singer photographed in Los Angeles, September 25th, 2016. He wanted his third album, 24K Magic, to be a soundtrack for a movie in his head that he described this way: "We're in New York. Summer night. The baddest rooftop house party. 2:30 in the morning, the band comes out, fucking dipped in Versace. The girls are screaming. And then the flyest lead singer the world has ever seen comes on and starts singing some shit." Read more.
This image was shot for the cover of Janet. (using the hands of Jackson’s then-husband, Rene Elizondo). Jackson’s label cropped the image to just her face and midsection, but Rolling Stone went for the reveal of the whole image on the cover. “Everyone read deeply into it,” Jackson said. “I just thought it was a cool shot.” Read more.
Gatewood wanted to shoot Stewart in the lobby of New York's swanky Pierre Hotel, but the Pierre was also hosting the 1973 Republican Governor's Conference, and hotel staff didn’t think a shirtless rock star mixed well with GOP lawmakers. So they adjourned to Stewart’s hotel room, where Gatewood caught this moment. Read more.
“We wanted that Mount Rushmore shot,” Watson said. “Clean, powerful, straightforward – iconographic.” Jay-Z – then president of Def Jam – showed up late to a session at Gleason’s boxing gym in Brooklyn with “10,000 things going on,” Watson said. “I told Jay, ‘I need ten minutes, give me that and we’ll get this photo.’” Read more.
“He’s showing his finger,” says Wolman. Garcia had lost most of the middle finger of his right hand at age five, during a wood chopping accident. “He hadn’t ever shown that before.” But Garcia trusted Wolman, who lived a few blocks away from the Grateful Dead house in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury. “So I’d see them around a lot.” Read more.
Petty was on the verge of releasing Into the Great Wide Open, his first album with the Heartbreakers in four years, when Seliger photographed him in Los Angeles in June of 1991. “As corny as it sounds, my life had been consumed by rock music,” he said. “I just loved it right from the beginning.” Read more.
The rapper photographed in Atlanta, March 15th, 2009. “To be the best, you have to smell like the best, dress like the best, act like the best. When you throw your trash in the garbage can, it has to be better than anybody else who can ever throw trash in the garbage can.” Read more.
This cover shot captured the triumphant energy of Turner’s Private Dancer comeback, though she would have prefered something with less wild abandon. “I’m old Hollywood,” she told Rolling Stone in 2006. “I wanted to look like Elizabeth Taylor. I wanted to be glamorous – as pretty as I could be, and here my mouth is wide open!” Read more.
Seliger met Phish on their home turf in Vermont, and though he shot them relaxing at bassist Mike Gordon’s home, he also had a slate of high concept ideas like this one. “In one day we went to five or six locations,” remembered guitarist Trey Anastasio. “He had us swimming in murky ponds, lying in vats of olive oil and dressing up like cavemen.” Read more.
Ritts shot a relaxed Bowie in motion on the roof of the photographer’s studio in the heart of Hollywood. “Herb would get into this place where he was shadowboxing with his subject,” said his longtime assistant Mark McKenna, “really using the camera in an attempt to capture that moment.” Read more.
The romantic turmoil of Rumours made this cover tricky. Christine McVie didn’t want to be near her ex, John McVie; Stevie Nicks didn’t want to be beside Lindsey Buckingham, so ended up in Mick Fleetwood’s arms – a hint of an affair to come. “I don’t know how healthy all this display of our personal life was,” said Buckingham. “But that’s showbiz.” Read more.
Marley was a reluctant subject — Leibovitz caught up with him on tour in Oakland, California and waited. “I staked out his dressing room for two days,” she said. “Finally, he started to feel sorry for me.” This iconic shot was the result. Read more.
Clapton’s four-year-old son, Conor, had died a few months before this cover; he would memorialize Conor with “Tears in Heaven.” Watson captured the dark moment with shadows across Clapton’s face. “I’d ask him to look into the light, to look into the camera,” Watson said. “He was completely cooperative. But in a weird way, it was like he wasn’t there.” Read more.
After this photo was shot in Santa Monica, California, on August 29th, 2013, for the magazine’s Hot Issue, Cyrus got tattoos to commemorate the occasion — ROLLING on the bottom of her right foot and $TONE on the bottom of her left. Read more.
Ritts captured a flash of Beatle Paul as McCartney applied rock & roll abandon to a classical double bass. “There’s this undeniable thing that happens,” said producer Mitchell Froom, who worked on McCartney’s 1989 album Flowers in the Dirt, of such moments in the accompanying cover story. “You know he’s really having a good time.” Read more.
The singer photographed in Hollywood on January 20th, 2013. “I could never tell a 10-year-old to look at me, because I know I’m not perfect. That’s not what I signed up for.” Read more.
When Seliger shot him as a gravedigger Waits had just resurrected his career, releasing his first new album in six years. “There are limits to what you can do,” he said. “One is not a tree that constantly blooms in the spring; the fruit falls and you put it in a basket.” Read more.
Leibovitz had complete backstage access to the Rolling Stones’ 1972 Exile on Main Street tour, explaining this candid image of a semi-conscious Richards. "Annie would become part of the tour," said Richards. "It was like, 'There's Charlie [Watts], there's the book and there's Annie. She was invisible to us. That's how she got a lot of good stuff." Read more.
Ice-T had weathered the “Cop Killer” controversy and was releasing a new album, Home Invasion, on an independent label, when Seliger shot this photo dramatizing the rapper’s free speech struggles. “I totally lost any belief in the Constitution, belief in the first amendment,” he said. “Really it’s just there to govern and control.” Read more.
Martin had just bought Franz Kline's 1959 painting Rue when Leibovitz shot him at his home. “It was the kind of thing only museums could afford,” she remembered. “And he was just in love with it. He said, 'I see myself in that photo.’” So that was the picture they made. Read more.
Townshend showed up at Leibovitz's studio after a gig, and she became transfixed by the blood on his hand, a common result from his signature guitar windmills. Much of it had dried, so Annie found some fake blood to enhance things. "I loved how that photo turned out," said Townshend. "I look like someone from Fight Club.” Read more.
Dre and Snoop were on the set of the “Let Me Ride” video when Seliger photographed them. “It was a good day,” remembered Dre, who directed the video. “We were over near Dorsey High, and Snoop was making me laugh. He’s a comedian, man.” Read more.
There was one problem with this cover commemoration of Midler’s breakthrough role as a tragic, Janis Joplin-like figure in The Rose: the cheap flowers Leibovitz had ordered were full of thorns. “We sat with clippers,” said Leibovitz, “furiously cutting off the thorns.” And Midler was able to lay herself down in a bed of roses without a scratch. Read more.
“He was playing around,” said Leibovitz of this shot of Dylan, taken at her Los Angeles photo studio in January of 1978. “And it was amusing, like something he would do with his kids.” But Dylan — who’d directed and starred in a movie, Renaldo and Clara, that played with multiple identities — was also making a mask. Read more.
“Not only does he look like he could stare down death,” says Wolman, who snapped this shot backstage at the Newport Folk Festival in 1969, “he probably did.” The image “nailed me down in people’s minds in a way that would continue for 35 years,” Taylor later said. “Drug addict. Mental patient.” But he admitted, that was also part of the story his music told. Read more.
Less than a month before Allman Brothers guitarist Duane Allman died in a motorcycle accident, the band were en-route to a show at L.A.'s Whiskey-a-Go-Go with photographer Annie Leibovitz along for the ride. She captured Duane and his brother Greg in a state of complete exhaustion, passed out in the back of their car near the band's gear. Read more.
“Herb never purposely went into a session saying, ‘I'm going to try and make this person into a sex symbol,’” says Mark McKenna, Ritts' executive assistant, of this shoot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles for Timberlake’s first solo Rolling Stone cover. “He really thought Justin had the 'It' quality." Read more.
Welch’s red ringlets inspired this shot in the style of a Renaissance painting, with the singer holding a small figurine in her hands like a religious amulet. "Where that prop came from, I don't remember,” says Kander. “I know I had it on my shelf. Afterwards, she might have taken it." Read more.
Clinton’s first Rolling Stone Interview took place during the 1992 campaign at a Little Rock, Arkansas, restaurant, Doe’s Eat Place. The second was in a private dining room — across the hall from the Oval Office. “When I told him my dad was raised in Hope, Arkansas, we had a fairly long conversation,” remembered Seliger. “He was very engaged and very curious and connected.” Read more.
The rapper photographed in New York: “Can I outdo myself again? Can I make a better rhyme than I made last time? That’s the whole chase.” Read more.
“We wanted him to do something outrageous,” remembered then-art director Derek Ungless. Murphy was up to the task. At Avedon’s Manhattan studio, he struck this pose, a parody of a crotch-grabbing Prince shot. For the close up that ran on the cover, Murphy leaned his chin on his right hand pensively – and stuck his pinky up his nose. Read more.
Leibovitz was using her camera to take a light reading when she snapped this unguarded shot. Looking at the contact sheets, Rolling Stone editor and publisher Jann S. Wenner instantly knew its directness captured the raw emotion of Lennon’s 1971 Rolling Stone Interview — his first public statement since the dissolution of the Beatles. “That’s the John that I knew – and I know,” Yoko Ono said. “That’s his spirit coming out.” Read more.
“That was my rental car from the airport,” says Wenner. “A beige, norm-core sedan. She asked me if she could drive. And then she said, ‘I’ll pay you $200 if I can smoke in your car.’ Because there was a sticker: ‘Do not smoke. $200 penalty.’ I said, ‘If you let me take a picture, I’ll let you smoke in here.’” Read more.
The Radiohead frontman, photographed in London, says Kander “is really comfortable showing and acting out the dour, twisted, darker, complicated areas of shadow. He played with it. He just gives this atmosphere." Read more.
When Schoeller went to shoot Cash at home in Hendersonville, Tennessee, June Carter Cash opened the door. “Just the two of them at home,” he says. The house was cluttered enough that he set up a seamless outside and captured Cash looking at once stoic and fragile. Read more.
“I can’t even get endorsements now,” West told Rolling Stone after this famous 2006 cover shot. The 13-hour marathon photo session that produced this image also included a setup of West as Muhammad Ali (recreating Ali’s 1965 triumph over Sonny Liston), and one of West on horseback with a topless Pamela Anderson. Read more.
Seliger shot Joel at the 12-acre East Hampton estate the Piano Man shared with then-wife Christie Brinkley. “I wanted to take something ordinary and flip it on its head,” says Seliger. “We tried a couple of different things — went to the beach and buried him up to his neck in sand. But the watering shot was so fitting.” Read more.
This portrait was shot for a 40th anniversary issue. “Rock & roll is more than music,” Smith told the magazine. “It is a consciousness. It merged with our ideologies — the civil rights movement, Vietnam. The music of the Sixties was synonymous with what was happening in our world. And that music will, consciously or unconsciously, still be a template for activism.” Read more.
Green Day photographed in Los Angeles, November, 1994. They were Best New Band in the magazine’s annual music awards. “I want to try and make some sense of all this and not become a parody of myself,” said Billie Joe Armstrong. “I never really thought being obnoxious would get me to where I am right now.” Read more.
Wenner shot on film in the soft light of sunset, on a beach in the Hamptons. “With digital, people can look at the picture immediately – it causes second-guessing,” he says. Film, though, “doesn’t break the momentum. It allows for mistakes and spontaneity. It makes the subject more free.” Read more.