Annie Leibovitz On Getting The Shot—And The Future Of Photography

In Cannes to discuss the making of Disney’s "Dream Portraits" series, Leibovitz shares some insight on her process and the state of her art.

As one of the world’s most renowned photographers, Annie Leibovitz’s work is instantly recognizable and those lucky enough to be her subjects are elevated to the realm of fantasy.

Annie Leibovitz

Her most fantastical work to date—the ongoing "Dream Portraits" campaign for Disney Parks that casts Hollywood A-Listers as fabled characters—was the subject of a recent talk that brought the legendary photographer to the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity recently. The work, she said, was emblematic of what happens when an agency and a brand allow an artist the freedom to ply her craft.

Aside from unpacking the process of how that campaign—created by agency Mcgarrybowen and featuring David Beckham as Prince Charming, Scarlett Johansson as Cinderella, Russell Brand as Captain Hook and Angelina Jolie as the evil queen Maleficent—came to life, Leibovitz also took some time to answer questions about her work as a whole.

Taylor Swift as Rapunzel

Here, Leibovitz shares her insight on the future of photography in a world of iPhones and Instagram, her creative process (how you can go back again), and how the tender relationship between John Lennon and Yoko Ono yielded a powerful and poignant photo on the day he died.


I think photography is stronger and better than ever before. Those of us who are photographers, the difference between us and everyone else is that we take what we do very seriously. There was a wonderful article in the New Republic that said photography came along long before there were cameras. We were always trying to capture the fleeting image. Photography came along long before we had the equipment. What is going to happen now is that we are the sensitive matter. You, the photographer, are the sensitive matter. What makes an impression on you is what will been seen. In this day and age of things moving so, so fast, we still long for things to stop, and we as a society love the still image. Every time there is some terrible or great moment, we remember the stills.


I personally made a decision many years ago that I wanted to crawl into portraiture because it had a lot of latitude. I realized I couldn’t be a journalist because I like to take a side, to have an opinion and a point a view; I liked to step across the imaginary boundary of the objective view that the journalist is supposed to have and be involved. It doesn’t mean we don’t need photojournalism. I think what happened to me is that I started to set up the covers of Rolling Stone magazine and I began to see more things set up and I saw there was a power in that. After that, I couldn’t go back to just journalism. But I still love the photo on the front page of the New York Times. It’s very, very important to me—I love to see how they use it, I love to see how they edit it. Those who want to be serious photographers, you’re really going to have to edit your work. You’re going to have to understand what you’re doing. You’re going to have to not just shoot, shoot, shoot. To stop and look at your work is the most important thing you can do.


As much as I’m not a journalist, I use journalism. And when you photograph a relationship, it’s quite wonderful to let something unfold in front of you. I love to take family pictures for that reason because there’s a dynamic. The hardest thing to do, actually, is a single person image because then it’s just me relating to that person. So with John and Yoko I sometimes think that photograph was 10 years in the making. I’d met John Lennon when I photographed him in my twenties and had just begun working for Rolling Stone. Then, there we were in NYC in 1980. He’d just finished the album Double Fantasy, and I’d seen the cover, which was both of them kissing. I was so moved by that kiss. There was so much in that simple picture of a kiss. It wasn’t unusual to imagine them with their clothes off, because they did that all the time. But what happened was at the last minute was that Yoko didn’t want to take her clothes off. We went ahead with the shoot [and] ended up with this very striking picture. Of course, beyond all control, he was murdered that afternoon.


I don’t think of myself as a very good technical photographer. I’m so sensitive. I’m very careful about who I let around me when I work because I feel everything that’s going on. I’m still learning about digital, the way we all are. In fact, some of the early work in the Disney campaign, I want to go back and redo now that the technology is better. Or maybe my eye is better. If there’s any secret to the sauce here in terms of the art part of it, I think early on I just did what I wanted to do, and I have to make sure that I’m working with people who will let me do that. If that can happen, I think it works out. There are not too many people who will work with you like that.


You have trust in what you think. If you splinter yourself and try to please everyone, you can’t. It’s important to stay the course. I don’t think I would have lasted this long if I’d listened to anyone. You have to listen somewhat and then put that to the side and know that what you do matters.


I find that the attention span of subjects is not that long. I think sessions should be short, only a few minutes. I believe that a session should be shorter and I do a lot of work up front, so a subject can come in quickly and be done. Maybe five times a year you find someone you wish you could spend more time with. But the idea that you’re going to get the soul of the sitter in 15 minutes is garbage. Not for what we’re doing for magazines. I do find, and this is something I haven’t really capitalized on, that as soon as I tell them it’s over, they relax and look amazing. I should be starting the shoot then! If there’s another secret that I have, it’s that I’m not afraid to go back. I know that everyone thinks you can’t go back, but you can. You just say, You know, this is great but I have this other idea. I don’t know how many times you go to take a picture in a session and, as you’re leaving it, you think of what you should have done, what you wish you’d done, or you have a better idea. Sometimes if I believe strongly, I’ll go back.


I actually did a small book called At Work, because I get asked so many questions about how I do what I do and I just thought it might help. In the back of the book are the 10 most asked questions. I wish there was a secret but it’s just hard work. Everyone is so surprised to hear that I do so much research. On the Disney project, on Cinderella, I didn’t just look at animated Cinderella or the Disney stories; I went back and looked at Grimm and all the versions of the story. It’s probably the most translated fairy tale with so many different versions that feed into it. Then, of course, I did veer back toward Disney because he certainly had this point of view. I did research on Walt Disney. I was enamored with his genius. I prefer order, but it’s most chaotic.

[Images courtesy of Disney]

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  • Cydnie Molloy

    I think there is a strong relationship in photography in knowing what you want during a shoot and also capturing what the subject / client brings to it. Striking the balance that Annie mentions is what makes her so awesome.

  • David Walker

    Great article. Although I am curious to know why Beyoncé or Queen Latifah were not mentioned in section of this article that discussed the "Dream Portraits?"

  • Steven Begleiter

    As Annie's former assistant, I have to say it was an honest interview. I worked with Annie in the 80's and I don't think she would have answered these questions in the same manner. I can tell she has matured and seems more comfortable in her skin.  Happy to hear and thanks for the interview.

  • Per Jansson

    Annie, thanks for saying it only takes a few minutes to get the shot!
    Love your work.
    And thanks for writing this great article Rae Ann!

  • Jon

    Some insightful (and helpful)comments.. as some of these final images are to a great degree reliant on mostly post-production, the thinking prior to
    the portraits would be interesting to know..

  • John Gerard Quinn

    Speaking as a master photographer,  I respect the art Ms. Leibovitz creates.

    That said:  The future of the photographic profession is some what circumspect now.  Cutting my photographic teeth in the late 1970's on silver, the loss of Kodakrome now, and countless jobs, here is my personally produced "Photography Act."   Maybe MS. Leibovitz has some pull in congress and would kindly share my sentiments as follows.

    The Photography Act 

    For the large population of workers whose jobs, revenues and futures depended upon 

    the photography industry and the "periphery" businesses and markets which were the fruits 

    of the traditional photography industry for more than 150 years…, and who have 

    NOW been unable to be gainfully employed as a result of the digital revolution or whose 

    income has been so severely affected that they are working in an industry which formerly 

    sustained them and their loved ones… but now,  as a result of "progress" 

    (and I use the word progress loosely) the former industry can no longer gainfully

    employ them.  These people,  (as a result of their own progress)  (each and every one) 

    of them should be financially compensated or at least re-educated by stipend.

    That is to say, if progress is still defined as: " solving more problems than it creates".

    They deserve to be compensated in the same way and for the same reasons as anyone else 

    who claims that certain property rights (intellectual and otherwise), (collectively and or 

    individually) belong to them.  Specifically,  because it was "their" ingenuity, industry 

    and collaboration that created the products and the billion dollar market which in turn 

    provided the inspiration (gateway and or transitional platform) needed for the new 

    larger and broader revenues which those employed in new digital photographic economy.

     Even those who are end users. They too owe something.  Most of whom never 

    specifically contributed one cent or ounce of energy in the *predicate, ie. 

    *(former) traditional industry of photography,  which now because of their blood sweat 

    and years, puts bread on the tables of those who are sustained by the new 

    digital revolution in photography.

    Put another way:

    The new and broader markets created by the accumulated equity of this group of 

    professionals would have been totally impossible (without) the decades 

    of cultivation, of investment  their talent, treasure and lifeblood. 

    This equity by these men and woman of early and later traditional silver based 

    photography, has DOLLAR value. Hence, their property has been seized without 

    the compensation due to them. Compensation that may, of course "vary" 

    depending upon  individual skill level, the amount of years working in the 

    business and or  other unique and verifiable contributions. 

    All of which are in fact:  "CAPITAL ASSETS" . 

    Assets which are "Extrinsic and or intrinsic". All which can be verifiable by the recorded 

    history of the industry and the few unique individuals whose names are well 

    known by contributions that made them famous, (in and out) of this unique peer group. 

    However, in spite of the fact that most have labored in obscurity they still are OWNERS in 

    the aforementioned, collective equity. Being thus they are still entitled to compensation. 

    Compensation which the new and prosperous industry should owe to their "paternity",

     i.e. , (the workers,  of the pre-digital photography industry), which they should by law be 

    required to PAY in:  "SUBIDIES and or TAXES". 

    What we are talking about here is: that the "new industry" is:

     ENCUMBERED BY A MORTGAGE. A mortgage, which is in serious DEFAULT. Of 

    these of these, "capital assets" some and likely most are (held in common) by the trades-

    people and professionals and their exists other capital assets that may have a more ( 

    individual claim)  because of singular personal invention and or singular positive notoriety 

    which had assisted in powerful ways to advance the industry, both monetarily and as a 

    (collective good),

    to the end that, all peoples everywhere have had their quality of life  enhanced by 

    the fruits of this universally renowned group of industrious, dedicated, and ingenious 

    "team"  of  people, called photographers.

    Also, monopolies exist in the field of, “stock photography” many large corporations 

    own large libraries of images and they collectively have diminished the value of, stock

    photographic images to pennies on the dollar.  This has completely decimated the 

    this part of the photographic industry, which once was a rewarding business.  I believe that

    in the case of “stock photography” the Sherman and Clayton Act have been undermined

    and law is being broken by these large corporate image houses.

    In closing, this document, essay, etc…, is intended as a first step  effort to bring those who 

    worked in this particular industry  and others, (because lets face it), photographers are 

    NOT the only victims of our "U.S. and international laws,

    NOT being able to kept pace with technology".  My purpose is; "TO CLOSE THIS GAP".

    Specifically, by writing and effecting new legislation and conscience that will bring "the 

    speed" in which technological advancements back under democratic control with fairness in 


  • Andrew Vasquez

    So wait, you think because you were a photographer for say 30 years before digital and then when digital came along you refused for whatever reason to adapt that you should be compensated? Ok boohoo. Frankly in this industry or in any industry you either evolve with it, or find another career that hasnt changed (goodluck). But you are not entiteled to anything.

  • Judi Duggan

    You want to make a living in this industry, see the old quote by HG Wells- Adapt or perish. Gone are the days where you can get away with ridiculous pricing, so stepping backwards isn't going to happen. Like it or not, the digital age has forced us to re-visit issues such as pricing, and how to market a business with so many churned out daily. You need to be even more inventive, creative, and adaptive, along with remaining marketable. It's one thing to be Ms Liebovitz, who can charge whatever she wishes; but it's quite another to make an honest living from portrait photography, and not gouge clients at every turn. Where you can point a finger is the ever-so-gullible new photographers that buy into the 'rockstar' mentality. The actions sold allow for cloning of work, with little to no focus on clean images. Our industry is becoming that of 'good enough', instead of great. The get-rich-quick mentality pervades, and no one will bother to tell others that the work is below standard.

  • shawn

    This is like saying that buggy and wagon makes should have been compensated because someone invented the car... This has happened with every new advancement ever. It displaces the old technology.

  • I certainly dont agree with alot of Mr. Quinns points, or at least with how he makes them. One thing is true in his concept however, and that is this. If someone invents a car, then he profits from the invention, If the car is stolen then the thief can be prosecuted and imprisoned. If someone steals a photo,...well good luck with that. Photos have not changed, they still have value. The idea that they can simply be "shared" and the creator be stuck with no payment is one facet that we have to gain control over.

  • Patrick T

    Sooo.... your work - not that good. You're obviously skilled and know how to market yourself but your work is far from masterful. I see a lot of stock-looking photos that lack mood or any kind of emotion. Everything - even your portraiture - is very commercial feeling and lacks the richness of any kind of story being told through your lens. 

    You, in my opinion, foolishly call yourself a master yet none of your work appears to be at the level of someone like Annie Leibovitz. You respect her work? You should be inspired by it. 

  • Jaymes Poudrier

    Things change. If you don't adapt you've no one to blame but yourself. Move on to the next field. PHOTOGRAPHY whether Digital or Analog still have the same underlying principles and concepts. I only read the first several lines before realizing how silly your argument was going to be. Art has always been an evolutionary process. 

  • Adaf

    What is this?  A poetry response to the article?  What's with the spacing?  And calling yourself a master is about as wrong as you can be about your craft.  Others can call you master, NOT you.  

  • Judi Duggan

    Well, you can become a 'master' photographer, but quite honestly, not one of my clients has ever asked for certification, let alone documentation of my insurance or bonding. Simple answer is, no one cares about the 'master' title; it's a certification that says you understand principles. Nothing more, nothing less. More often than not, when I see someone throwing the title around, it makes me question their own insecurities.

  • ludwig desmet

    Well, isn't that the cynical thing about any progress, no matter wat field of 'artistry' you are working in. I have seen bank empoyees sell Internet banking contracts, and get themselves kicked out of the bank two months later because they became obsolete. If a farmer sold his horses 100 years ago, because mankind invented a tractor, do we need to compensate the horses?
    Thats the irony of our western business model I'm afraid. The less people it takes to make a product, the more the benefit. The unemployed will get unemployment benefits (if they are lucky) paid by the remaining working force, unfortunately not by the company making the profit by firing another 100 people. 
    It has nothing to do with photography.
    Please let every painting artist pay a contribution to the Lascaux grotte painters. ;)

  • robert

    A master photographer doesn't equal a master businessman. But I'd never trust anyone who referred to themselves as a master anyways. 

    Speaking as a self-employed freelance photographer who is making it work somehow, I'd say your photography act is just an attempt to protect old assets (though I'll be honest I can't read the whole thing, it seems silly). If you can't make it work in today's market, the problem isn't the market. 

    If you're a 'master' I am sure you are competent than me. Would you vomit if I told you I can't competently make a darkroom c-print and that I don't know how to print in the zone system, but I just did 3 magazine shoots last week? The necessary knowledge base is changing, just like it probably will for me in 20 years. That's life. Adapt or die. Meh.

    Leibovitz has chosen to adapt, it's nice of her to share her opinions.