Annie Leibowitz and the ultimate Rolling Stone magazine cover


It is December 8, 1980. Photographer Annie Leibowitz is greeted by John Lennon at the door of his New York apartment at The Dakota. She is here to take a shot of Lennon for Rolling Stone. 'It'll be great,' she promises the former Beatle 'I'll put you on the front cover.'

The shoot starts with Leibowitz taking portrait shots of Lennon alone in the apartment but he looks thin and tired and after a few minutes Lennon asks her try something else. He insists that both he and Yoko Ono should be in the photograph.

Thinking on her feet, Leibovitz remembers the kissing scene from their recent Double Fantasy album cover - a picture that she loved. She thinks how she might be able to re-create it and asks them both to remove their clothes and just curl up on the floor. Lennon happily disrobes and chucks his clothes onto the sofa. However Yoko refuses to take off her clothes and Leibovitz is 'kinda disappointed.'

Annie Leibowitz grabs her Polaroid camera, pulls up a chair and frames the couple. 'We took one Polaroid,' said Leibovitz, 'and the three of us knew it was profound right away. He curled up next to her and it was very, very strong. You couldn't help but feel that she was cold and he looked like he was clinging on to her. I think it was amazing to look at the first Polaroid and they were both very excited. John said, 'You've captured our relationship exactly. Promise me it'll be on the cover.' I looked him in the eye and we shook on it.'

Leibovitz was the last person to professionally photograph Lennon. He was shot and killed just five hours later. This photograph ran on the cover of the Rolling Stone Lennon commemorative issue. In 2005 the American Society of Magazine Editors named it the best magazine cover from the past 40 years.

Annie Leibovitz is one of the few living photographers whose images have strongly influenced pop culture. Her images have shaped the fabric of the Western World in a way that most visual artists can only dream of. Not only is she arguably the most well-known living portrait photographer, but she is also a prolific photo-journalist, and one of the strongest active advertising, fashion, beauty and glamour photographers.

Her life has been an astounding roller coaster ride of countless ups and downs, and her body of work is not only vast, but multidimensional in a way that cannot be accurately described in a mere blog post.

Her career began as a photojournalist for Rolling Stone in 1970, while she was still a student at the San Francisco Art Institute. Her pictures have appeared regularly on magazine covers ever since, and her large and distinguished body of work encompasses some of the most well-known portraits of our time.

You can view Leibovitz' honest and insightful documentary Life through a Lens' below.

John Fountain is a freelance writer