After Annie Leibovitz’s start as a staff photographer for Jann Wenner’s Rolling Stone in 1970, her first cover for the magazine—a black-and-white portrait of a boyish-looking John Lennon—ran in January 1971, when Leibovitz was just 21. Almost a decade later, she took the now-iconic photograph of Lennon nude and curled around Yoko Ono in bed, just hours before Lennon’s assassination; the print became the magazine’s striking memorial cover. Leibovitz’s other subjects for the magazine, where she worked until 1983, when she left for Vanity Fair, included dozens of other artists who shaped the era, like Patti Smith, Bob Dylan and Bob Marley. Now, in Annie Leibovitz: The Early Years, 1970–1983, a new show opening February 14 at Hauser & Wirth in L.A., Leibovitz revisits that work for the first time. The photographer combed through thousands of images to select the more than 4,000 pictures in the exhibition. She talks about curating the show with WSJ.:
WSJ. Magazine: What was your emotional reaction to looking back on your early work?
Annie Leibovitz: Well, it is very emotional to see that period. Installing it in L.A., I realized how the work was really born in California. I worked for Rolling Stone for 13 years, and for the first seven or eight, a lot of the work was there: driving the highways, the offices, living in San Francisco and going down to L.A. to do work. There’s some of my family pictures in there as well. And a lot of people I photographed aren’t with us any longer, so both those things become very emotional to me. The writers Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson aren’t with us anymore. You look at it and you see this bygone era of sorts that resonates with today and what’s going on with our politics today, on some level—kind of mirroring the Nixon period.
But I can also stand outside of it and look at it as the story of a young photographer learning how to take photographs. Learning how to see, learning how to look, learning. You know, I was obsessed. Everything was about photography. I had my camera with me all the time and I lived with my camera. On some level, to grow up for me was having to wean myself from all that—to start to have a life.
How did you choose the photos in the show?
I wanted it to overwhelm a young photographer… I’ve always been in love with the series in photography, how photographs sort of bounce off each other, and how they give it a new meaning when you see them next to each other, like brothers and sisters. In the end, I’ve always understood that the power of my work is going to be the body of work.
How did your eye develop over the years?
At one point I thought maybe I was a journalist. But I realized that I probably was not, because I had a point of view and I thought the work was stronger if it had a personal point of view.
At what point did you realize your talent for portraits?
I don’t think I ever thought that way. I think that I got tired of having a label of some kind. When I worked at Rolling Stone, I was a music photographer, and then when I went to Vanity Fair, I was a celebrity photographer. I realized, maybe people will leave me alone if I just said I was a portrait photographer, you know? In portraiture, you’re allowed to take some license. You’re allowed to use journalism, you’re allowed to use creativity, you’re allowed to go off the grid, go off the deep end, you know? You can have all different ways of approaching how to take a photograph.
I first looked back at this period of work in 1990, in this book that had John Lennon and Yoko Ono on the cover [Annie Leibovitz: Photographs, 1970-1990]. When I first looked at it, I thought Oh, I’m so envious of that young work. It’s just so pure and energetic and out there and journalistic, and it was very powerful. I did try to integrate some of that in my portraiture. And that’s kind of where I’m at now. I think I’m kind of a hybrid—it looks a little bit like journalism, but it’s still a very set up, posed picture.
You’ve written before that the best photos you’ve made of musicians were of the Rolling Stones on tour. Still true?
Yes. I was asked to be the tour photographer for the 1975 Rolling Stones tour, and of course I said yes, because Robert Frank did the 1972 Rolling Stones tour and Robert Frank was like God to me. [The band was] very open. I was hired to get publicity pictures, and after the first week I never saw the daylight again. I turned into a nocturnal animal. So I was very ingrained and working in a way that was very special. So they, of course, are the best [of my] work of that period of musicians. I didn’t look at the work for a long time afterwards because I didn’t want it to be so romantic and it just still has a sense or a feeling of romance. But I’m long past that now, so.
What’s the most important thing you could achieve with your art?
Having done this for so long, almost 50 years, sometimes it’s just about having a record. The body of work takes over. It’s bigger than me. It has just a sense of history, and I feel committed and responsible to working until I can’t work any longer and continuing this body of work to look at this period of time.
Is there something about the way you work that gets subjects to open up?
When you’re young, no one’s paying any attention to you. Imagine you’re a girl, size S. No one’s really paying attention, and I think that I wasn’t really known until maybe the ‘90s, when I did that book and people began to connect who I was with my photography. Sometimes it works against you to be known, and people don’t really want to deal with that. But that being said, I think that I’m pretty direct. I’m pretty straightforward and no-nonsense and we get to work right away.
What books do you read?
When I first started taking photographs, in ‘69, ‘70, there were not that many photography books, there were just a few. But now it’s pretty prolific. I’m just looking at two catalogs that are just incredible: that David Wojnarowicz catalog from the Whitney, which is an incredible volume, and then also the Brassaï catalog from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s show. That’s what’s sitting on my table right now.
I’m also reading Beto O’Rourke’s blogs. I’m very impressed with him and his stream-of-consciousness writing. He’s out there meeting people and he’s telling their stories. He’s out searching, and I find it very appealing because I can identify with that.
And what’s next?
Well, it’s hard for me, I can’t tell you what I’m doing, literally. But this year I am working on a series, of course, of portraits throughout the year of a lot of politics. This weekend I’ll be doing one, but I can’t tell you who they are. But you can imagine. And suffice it to say, whoever you can think of, that’s what I’m working on.
—This interview has been edited and condensed.
Corrections & Amplifications
Leibovitz combed through thousands of images to select the more than 4,000 pictures for the show. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated she selected more than 5,000. (February 13, 2019)