Annie Leibovitz | Portraiture


Without a doubt Annie Leibovitz has to be one of the most famous and influential photographers of all time. Born in 1949 in Connecticut she spent her youth travelling with her family to different countries because her father was a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Air Force. Leibovitz was introduced to the arts by her mother who had a passion for music, dancing & painting. She began showing her creative side whilst taking photographs at an early age around the military bases where they were stationed during the Vietnam War.

Leibovitz originally wanted to be an Art Teacher, she studied painting at the San Fransisco Art Institute but later changed her Master to Photography. It was after this that she graduated and returned to the U.S. that her career as a portrait photographer began.

51vdxxrfuol._sx389_bo1,204,203,200_Portraits can be drawn, painted, carved, photographed or in any other way that creates a likeness to them, their personality or mood.

In an article by Kathleen Francis in The Focal Encyclopedia of Photography, Fourth Edition, she states that a portrait is broken down into these three categories:


  • Captures the personality or essence of a subject. Not just a picture with a person in it. A “clinical” portrait might not attempt to reveal the soul of a person, but it still needs to capture something of that person’s uniqueness — or else it’s not a portrait.
  • Is staged. While portraits can be candid, even those tend to have some intentionality. The lighting, backdrops, and poses are important, even if they are ad hoc. (Or maybe especially when they are.)
  • Is commissioned. While this isn’t necessary in a literal sense, in a larger sense portrait photographs are made for the purpose. Someone — the subject, or the artist, or some organization — wants a portrayal of a certain person (or group of people). Even a street portrait of a stranger can fit, based on the photographer’s intention.


Leibovitz portraits over the years can fit into all of those categories but without a doubt she has an incredible ability to highlight a part of a person’s character. She started out as a staff photographer in 1970 for the Rolling Stone Magazine then became their Chief Photographer by 1973. She held this role for 10 years shooting 142 covers, to list a few – John Lennon, Ike & Tina Turner, Meryl Streep, Fleetwood Mac, John Travolta, Bob Marley:



During her time with the magazine she toured with the Rolling Stones. It was her job for which she was paid to photograph for the magazine and their agenda, some were staged but most of them were documenting the life of the Rockstars.

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In this interview with Charlie Rose  Leibovitz talks about her time on the Tour, she was immersed in what was going on in their career and found it extremely hard to get off ‘The Tour’ when it finished. After battling a drug addiction she attended rehab, ‘The Tour’ had become her life so when that ended she really struggled. She says she had no life outside of taking pictures so she needed help to break free and build a life in order to carry on with her career.

During Leibovitz time with the Rolling Stone magazine her assignments gave her the opportunity to photograph famous actors, bands and artists and was known for her bold and quirky style. It wasn’t until 1980 when she became a photographer for Vanity Fair that she had more free rein and decisions surrounding the assignments she was given. During this time she became well-known for her controversial portraits, she loved being in control and pushing the boundaries, being able to reveal parts of the celebrities personalities that hadn’t been seen before. This resulted in the articles and shoots that she was involved to stand out in publications and Leibovitz becoming a celebrity in her own right… not that she likes being called a celebrity!

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Her first book – Photographs, 1970 – 1990 was a way for her to look back and reflect on her assignment work over the first 20 years being a photographer.


She was given some advice by Bea Feitler, Art Director for Ms Magazine at the time, which was the inspiration for putting this collection of photographs together as a book:

You will learn the most from looking back at your work and by looking back you will discover how to go forward

Bea Feitler

In 2005 she released her second book –download

A photographer’s Life: 1990 – 2005

This book very different from its predecessor, it contains her assignment work alongside personal photographs that give an inside look into Leibovitz life during those 15 years. This includes photographs of her loved ones throughout the most difficult period of her life documenting the extreme highs and lows that she went through. ‘ I don’t have two lives, – Annie Leibovitz writes in the Introduction to this collection of her work from 1990 to 2005. -This is one life, and the personal pictures and the assignment work are all part of it’

Leibovitz’ 6 figure day fee might seem hefty but she has been through great lengths to get to where she is now. Between 2000 – 2007 she gave birth to her first  daughter, lost her life partner to Leukemia, her father passed away with lung cancer and then her mother died. The pressure of dealing with losing them and not being great with money landed her in $24 Million dollars of debt. After securing a large loan, selling properties, art and lots of legal battles later she managed to pay her debt and retain the rights to her work. That period of her life may have been the lowest but at the same time she achieved great things:

  • In 2000 she was deemed a Living Legend by the Library of Congress,
  • In 2009 she was awarded The Royal Photographic Society’s Centenary Medal and Honorary Fellowship in 2009
  • And with the help of a surrogate, welcomed twin girls in 2005, whom she named Susan and Sam in honor of her lover and father.

In 2007 after the release of her second book she became the first American to be invited to photograph the official portraits of the longest reigning monarch Queen Elizabeth.

The preparation for this half an hour shoot took 3 weeks to prepare, researching previous monarch portraits, their outfits, the settings and how they were lit and posed. On the day of the shoot, Leibovitz had 11 assistants and lots of equipment with her. In an interview with the Telegraph – Women: New Portraits Leibovitz reflected on her time with the Queen during the shoot.

“I told the Queen how much I admired Cecil Beaton, and that I was modelling the picture after his, and she said: ‘You must make your own way, dear.’ She was mad at me for taking in so much equipment. Apparently the Queen has this other photographer who only comes with one paper bag of stuff. She likes her so much she helps move the furniture! I love that.”


Even in the presence of the Queen Leibovitz appears calm and focused, almost as though it’s no different to any other shoot that she’s ever done. She even asked the Queen to remove her tiara so it looked ‘Less dressy’ which The Queen didn’t seem too happy about. It obviously didn’t do too much damage because she was invited back to photograph the Queen again in 2016.



Like in most of the portraits Leibovitz takes out on location, the subject is part of a bigger picture. The surroundings that are included tell so much more about the subject, the time that they live in, the job that they do, sometimes there is a frame within a frame or there’s a scene of activity that gives depth and reality to the picture. They appear to me  almost as if they were a Still from a movie.

Examples of this can be found in her latest book – Annie Leibovitz Portraits 2005 – 2016, this inspiring book is the weight of 10 books, It’s a showstopper that I will treasure in my Photography collection forever.

Most of the photographs are 2:3 landscape ratio. She lights her subjects using strobes and soft boxes in a way that enhances and doesn’t interfere with the ambient light of their surroundings whether it’s shot inside or outdoors and the result is a very natural looking image. This takes me back to an interview that she had with TimesTalks:

When asked about her photographs being ‘un-varnished’ Leibovitz seemed to struggle with a clear answer to what she was being asked. What I think by that term is that perhaps she means they don’t look like they have been over-processed in Photoshop. Which with the limitless possibilities there are these days in post production, many photographers are much better photo manipulators than they are photographers, whereas Leibovitz spends more time getting it right in camera with the soft lighting and subject position in the frame resulting in the image ‘appearing’ more real.

In reflection she says that she thinks the body of work is strong, not the individual pictures, but the accumulation of the book is important.

One of the things that I am drawn to the most in Leibovitz work is the power she has to build the connection with her subject and the camera. Although it is something that she says should not be the sole responsibility of the photographer, it has to be a collaboration. In many of her images, the look in her subject’s eyes, more often than not, dominates the narrative of the image. People often call eyes the windows to the soul, Leibovitz demonstrates a great power in the connection she gets with her subjects and the camera.


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As a portrait photographer myself I know how important it is to get the model relaxed before any photographs are taken. When working on the cover shoots for Kookie Magazine, we’ve had a couple of confident girls that just oozed personality from the start and others that you needed to talk to and find some familiar ground with first before any photographs can be taken. There’s no script for this either, it usually results in me making an idiot of myself so they can see they’ve got nothing to be nervous about.


In an interview with Michael Schacht he describes his gentle approach which is similar michael-schacht-lead-image-hollywood-reporter-chicago.jpgto my own and probably most photographers.  “It’s a vulnerable thing being photographed. It’s not abnormal for me to sit and chat with people for 20 minutes before I photograph them. I’m timing myself; I am watching for a look in their eye… Once I see it, I know we are ready to start photographing.” Like with Leibovitz it is about the human connection.


The eyes are the place one looks for the most complete, reliable, and pertinent information” about the subject. And the eyebrows can register, “almost single-handedly, wonder, pity, fright, pain, cynicism, concentration, wistfulness, displeasure, and expectation, in infinite variations and combinations.

Author and Artist Gordon C. Ayma


In a study titled –  ‘Why we tend to show our left side in pictures’ it claims that most people turn their face to the right to show more of their left side.

Looking at historical portrait paintings and photographs there was around 60% of the subjects were turned to the right, showing the left side of their face. Sam believes this favoritism for the left side of people’s faces, or a subject’s natural tendency to highlight that side is related to the part of the brain responsible for its use.  He explains that the left half of the body is controlled by the right half of the brain which is also responsible for emotion and communication, making it more pleasing to look at and more likely to convey emotion.

Many people commented under this article, some claiming it was utter rubbish and others totally backing the theory.

That ‘left brain, right brain’ stuff has already been disproved. Old world myths still persist, so please do your research.

I’m not sure about that. I’m by no means a neuroscientist, but from what I’ve read neural crossover is a very real thing. Check out the corpus callosum — if someone is missing this structure they can draw a circle with one hand while simultaneously drawing a square with the other. Certain regions of the brain are responsible for certain activities. For example, the rhombencephalon (sometimes called the hindbrain), located just above the spine is responsible for many of our base functions. While I haven’t studied the anatomical structures referenced in this video I don’t think the conjecture requires too much of an intellectual leap. Plus it was meant to spark a conversation. Thanks for your input!

It’s because the majority of the world read words from left to right and as a result we naturally read images in this direction too. Therefore the brain more easily accepts the face or portrait reading into the face as opposed into the back of the head. It is also the most common direction of lighting into still life subjects in many of the old masters paintings. Much of my work is shot the same way although not necessarily intentionally, other times the environment you are shooting in dictates the direction your subject faces


Either way, Leibovitz may follow other historical techniques like Rembrandt lighting but when it comes to posing she occasionally has them facing towards the left side of frame but it’s not something I see a lot in her work. More often they are positioned straight on to the camera or facing towards the right side of the frame.

“I no longer believe that there is such a thing as objectivity,” she once said. “Everyone has a point of view. Some people call it style, but what we’re really talking about is the guts of a photograph. When you trust your point of view, that’s when you start taking pictures.”

Annie Leibovitz


When asked if Leibovitz had a life philosophy – “Not really. Work hard, be with your family. It doesn’t really add up to anything I’d embroider on a pillow,” she laughs. “I try to be home for dinner, but I’m not there enough. I sometimes feel I’m still fumbling, getting it wrong, but I make my way.”

So it’s endearing to know that even on a day rate of between $100,000 and $250,000 that she still has simple goals to work hard and make sure she is home for dinner to spend time with her family!


Leibovitz is an inspiration not only because she is one of the most well known female photographers carved in history but also as an incredible female role model and educator.

She has photography classes available to purchase online, these are similar to many other photographers that I follow like Kelly Brown and Sue Bryce. You can purchase single classes or pay yearly to access everything. Every year I invest in education, workshops that are related to my photography or building my business. This is so important, especially for ideas and inspiration. I hope to one day be able to pass my knowledge on and become an educator so having the opportunity to learn from the best photographers such as Leibovitz who has spent her whole life in the industry is such a privilege.

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As I get older I understand my role in it all, the power of the body of the work; it has such a weight, a story.

Annie Leibovitz






(1) The Focal Encyclopedia of Photography, Fourth Edition. Michael. R. Peres.