Annie Leibovitz clearly hated what a lifetime-achievement award implied about her—that the best days of her 40-year career were behind her. “Photography is not something you retire from,” the 59-year-old Leibovitz said from the stage, accepting the honor from the International Center of Photography last May at Pier 60. She was turned out in a simple black dress and glasses, her long straight hair a little unruly, as usual. Photographers, she said, “live to a very old age” and “work until the end.” She noted that Lartigue lived to be 92, Steichen 93, and Cartier-Bresson 94. “Irving Penn is going to be 92 next month, and he’s still working.” Then her tone turned rueful. “Seriously, though, this really is a big deal,” she said, hoisting her Infinity Award statuette, her voice quavering to the point where it seemed she might cry. “It means so much to me, you know, especially right now. It’s, it’s a very sweet award to get right now. I’m having some tough times right now, so … ”
The 700 friends and colleagues who had come to share the evening with her knew about the “tough times.” Two vendors had sued her for more than $700,000 in unpaid bills, and in February, the New York Times ran a front-page story reporting that in order to secure a loan, Leibovitz had essentially pawned the copyrights to her entire catalogue of photographs. Even those who had known she was in trouble were shocked by the extent of it. Leibovitz was responsible for some of the world’s most iconic magazine covers—a naked John Lennon with Yoko Ono for Rolling Stone, Demi Moore, naked and pregnant, for Vanity Fair. She had moved from celebrity portraiture to fashion photography to edgier, more artistic pictures; some considered her the heir to Richard Avedon or Helmut Newton.
Despite being a compulsive perfectionist whose shoots cost a fortune to produce, Leibovitz was very much in demand. People spoke of a fabled “contract for life” from Condé Nast, thought to bring her as much as $5 million annually. (The estimate didn’t seem far-fetched; a decade ago, the Times reported that Condé Nast chairman Si Newhouse had instructed Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter not to “nickel and dime” Leibovitz over the issue of an extra quarter-million dollars in her contract.) She was said to earn a day rate of $250,000 just to set foot in a studio for an advertising job for clients like Louis Vuitton. Over the years, Leibovitz had bought and sold a small fortune in real estate—a penthouse in Chelsea with a photo studio nearby, a sprawling townhouse in Greenwich Village, a compound in Rhinebeck once owned by the Astor family, and a Paris pied-à-terre overlooking the Seine. Virtually anyone (the Queen of England, for instance) would agree to be photographed by her, and she had a longtime relationship with the celebrated writer and intellectual Susan Sontag.
Lately, however, Leibovitz’s life had taken a decidedly dark turn. Her reference to “tough times” was significantly understated. In the past five years, Sontag and both of Leibovitz’s parents have died. Her debts now total a staggering $24 million, consolidated with one lender with whom she is engaged in a lawsuit and due in September. If she can’t meet that deadline, she may lose her homes and the rights to her life’s body of work.
Friends say Leibovitz has begun to think of herself less as a celebrity artist leading a charmed life and more as a single mother of three fighting to keep a roof over her head and food on her family’s table. It isn’t surprising, then, that she bristled at a lifetime-achievement award. The fear of no longer working is terrifying to her. She has to work. What remains mystifying is the simple question on everyone’s mind that night: How on earth could something like this have happened to Annie Leibovitz?
Leibovitz was born in 1949, in Waterbury, Connecticut. Her father, Sam, joined the Air Force after an unsuccessful stint in the fashion business. Her mother, Marilyn, was a dancer who had once performed with Martha Graham. Right after Leibovitz graduated from high school, the family moved to the Philippines. Sam wanted his 17-year-old daughter to stay close by and attend the University of the Philippines. Anna Lou, the name her family still uses to address her, had other ideas. The six-foot-tall girl, seemingly composed of all knees, elbows, and glasses, packed off for the Bay Area, where her sister Susan lived. In 1967, Leibovitz enrolled in the San Francisco Art Institute as a painting major, hoping to eventually teach art. Instead, she fell in love with photography, and in 1970 a boyfriend persuaded her to submit pictures she’d taken for a class—police in riot gear, Allen Ginsberg at a peace rally—to Rolling Stone, then just three years old. It took only three years after that for Jann Wenner to install her on the masthead as “chief photographer” alongside the likes of Hunter S. Thompson.
*In "How Could This Happen to Annie Leibovitz," by Andrew Goldman (August 24), Goldman made the following statement with regard to a loan agreement that Leibovitz entered into with a company called Art Capital: "Under the terms of the agreement, says a person familiar with the loan, Art Capital could be entitled to up to 22.5 percent of all the proceeds from the sale of any of Leibovitz's work—even for two years after she's paid off the loan. And that percentage could increase to close to 50 percent if she were to default." New York Magazine has since learned that those numbers were erroneous. The actual commission rates on the sale of the collateral underlying the loan are 10 percent on Leibovitz’s real estate and 15 percent on the sale of her work. In the event Leibovitz defaults on the loan a default commission of 25 percent, and after costs as low as 14 percent, would be realized. New York regrets the error.