It’s been known for a while already that photographer Annie Leibovitz has been going through some hard times. But this week, Andrew Goldman from New York magazine wrote an article about her debt, loans, lawsuits and the possibility of losing the rights to her work.
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?
- New York Magazine
And just in case you’re not sure of who Leibovitz is or if you’ve seen her work, here are a few samples that might ring a bell.