“I look back at it now,” Annie Leibovitz said at the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1991, “I realize that one of the things I loved toward the end at Rolling Stone were the conceptual covers.” She had left for Vanity Fair in 1983, in part to follow an art director she admired. There she did little until Tina Brown arrived all bluster and balls in 1984—and then she did a lot.
Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone’s owner-operator, had become overly concerned about newsstand sales. “He wanted really clean, you know, head shots really. There was a study—they started to do studies, you know,” Ms. Leibovitz said. “And they came up with this study that the conceptual covers didn’t sell well because the person wasn’t recognizable. … For example, the Steve Martin photograph against the Franz Kline painting was the worst-selling cover that year.”
Annie Leibovitz had gotten too rock ’n’ roll for Rolling Stone.
That worst-selling cover—from February 1982—is a real mess, in today’s focus-group-in-a-Chicago-mall terms. Mr. Martin, in a suit, is painted with crude black stripes, and is in mid-campy-dance-step. The black-and-white painting looms beyond him. (Inside you might have learned that he would prefer not to discuss his relationship with Bernadette Peters.)
Then there was her Matt Dillon cover late that year. Mr. Dillon, pouty and incredibly young, is in slacks and shirt and tie, twisted and reclining, one leg up, thereby showing half his ass—and with his crotch placed nearly dead center on the magazine’s cover. What definitely seems to be Mr. Dillon’s extended middle finger rests near his square hairline. It was her last Rolling Stone cover. Now that’s how you say goodbye—to your magazine, your youth, whatever.
Ms. Leibovitz was, for much of the 80’s, an unusual bridge between the fine art world and the commercial world. This meant that in her practice she gathered commerce in one hand and journalism in the other.
Then as magazines went, so went Annie Leibovitz.
“‘Mr. President, wave!’ Annie suddenly called as they ambled toward the residence,” Tina Brown wrote in The Washington Post a few years back of the 1989 Vanity Fair shoot of Ron and Nancy Reagan.
Ms. Leibovitz had the two in Christmas-red cashmere sweaters.
Ms. Brown went on: “‘Whom are we waving at?’ Mrs. Reagan asked. ‘Congress, Nancy,’ said the president.”
It is hard to pinpoint the year and time in which Ms. Leibovitz’s balance collapsed, but it may very well have been 1989, and it may have been right there in the Rose Garden.
But there were so many other opportunities along her path between touring with the Rolling Stones in the mid-70’s to her show of portraits of women, called, handily, “Women.” I caught that one at the Corcoran in D.C., eight years ago.
The larger prints were actually split and mounted on two separate backings, with a vast seam running vertically down the middle. This wasn’t photography as museums know it. It was a collection of cheaply produced touring posters.
By 2003, she was subject to a brutal takedown by Ginia Bellafante in The New York Times. Among the kinder ideas expressed, she described Ms. Leibovitz as being “devoutly committed to portraiture while seeming remarkably uninterested in people.”
In 2006, she was untouched by an attack by Times art critic Roberta Smith, on the occasion of a Brooklyn Museum retrospective. It was a vicious amplification of Ms. Smith’s 1991 opinion of Ms. Leibovitz’s sort-of tautological problem: Her “images are only as interesting as the achievements or public persona of her subjects.”
Ms. Leibovitz was busy shooting Disney campaigns, American Express campaigns, Vogue campaigns, Gap campaigns—and who can forget all her work on behalf of those dairy pimps, the National Fluid Milk Processor Promotion Board, which had peaked early with the publication of 1998’s The Milk Mustache Book: A Behind-The-Scenes Look at America’s Favorite Advertising Campaign?
“The truth is, I thought I was doing journalism, but I really wasn’t,” Ms. Leibovitz told Powell’s Books in 1999. “When I started working for Rolling Stone, I became very interested in journalism and thought maybe that’s what I was doing, but it wasn’t true. What became important was to have a point of view.”