Photographer Annie Leibovitz reflects on legendary career, hardships and learning with age

For almost five decades, photographer Annie Leibovitz has built a portfolio that could serve as a chronicle of American culture. She began her career in 1970 as a photojournalist for Rolling Stone magazine and went on to shoot some of the most iconic portraits of our time. She earned a reputation as a relentless perfectionist by way of her stylized, high-concept settings.

The Library of Congress in 2000 designated her a living legend. Leibovitz spoke with "CBS This Morning" co-host Charlie Rose about her latest book of portraits, her life and her remarkable work.

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"I love photography. And I just eat it up. I feel like I'm an encyclopedia, you know, inside," Leibovitz said. "Like, when I was photographing the queen and said, 'You know, I really am thinking about Cecil Beaton as I'm taking your picture.' And she said to me, 'Well, Annie, you've really got to find your own way,' you know. She said that."
 
There are few kinds of royalty that Leibovitz hasn't photographed. Her subjects are some of the most prominent people in the world: famous athletes, actors, presidents – and businessmen-turned-presidents.

Her latest collection of portraits spans her work from 2005 to 2016 -- years, she writes, when "culture was shifting in ways that we didn't quite take in."

"Over a year ago. Must have been August, like, three months before the election. And I thought, 'You know, I think I should try to put a book out and it would end with Hillary Clinton in the White House. That would be my ending," she said.  

That plan didn't pan out.

"And then we had an election. And I really do think in the last 20 or 30 pages, it's like you can feel me just, like, not knowing where to go, what to do. I was throwing everything in there. I shot Kate McKinnon. Throw her in. I shot Oprah. Throw her in. I shot Bruce Springsteen. Throw him in. You know, it was like we had to pick ourselves up," she said.
 
As one of the most sought-after portraitists in the world, she's worked with top magazine editors who, as she did, became celebrities in their own right.

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Annie Leibovitz with Charlie Rose in her New York office 

CBS News

Of how those editors, like Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner and Tina Brown, who helmed both Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, helped define her, she said, "They were smart enough to know to let me go do what I – what I do and find my way."

Her work began in 1970 in the counterculture capital of San Francisco. In just three years, at 24, she was Rolling Stone's chief photographer, scoring spreads with stars like John Lennon and Mick Jagger, who in 1975 personally asked Leibovitz to swap the magazine for his rock 'n' roll band.

"I was kinda like bright-eyed. And, you know, like I couldn't believe, you know, everything that I was walking into," she said.

Leibovitz was quick to insist that her time with some of the biggest rock stars in the world wasn't spent hanging out.       

"I went on tour with the Rolling Stones in 1972 for two or three cities. And in 1975 I was the tour photographer for the Rolling Stones. I hung onto my camera for dear life," she said. "Because it scared the hell out of me."
 
She left the tour with a drug addiction that took years to overcome but found new stability in steady portrait work and then in her longtime partner, writer Susan Sontag.
 
"I kind of thought about this relationship with Susan. And I thought, 'Oh, God, this is gonna mean I'm gonna have to get – I'm gonna have to be good. I'm gonna have to be, this is gonna be about my work.' This is what it's gonna be to know Susan," Leibovitz said. "She was tough."

"She didn't have to do much to set a bar. I mean, she – she was the bar."

Their 15-year relationship ended when Susan died from cancer in 2004. Her death marked a new period of hardship for Leibovitz who also lost both her parents and found herself millions in debt.  

 "I would do assignments and pay for them myself. And, you know, had no regard for money, had no regard for – for business. Well, that is completely not happening anymore. You know, I just work really hard. And picked it all up and put it back together and understand my business so much more," she said.

Now 68, Leibovitz lives with her three daughters in New York City, and works with her team in a small office downtown. For all the change her world has met with over the years, she says she finds herself increasingly prepared for it.
 
"I feel more like a creative artist using photography because there's – the digital work is so interesting now," she said. "It's come to that. I have had many different stages of photography are there are many different ways to take photos. But I feel now I'm in that stage of my life where I use the camera, you know, in that way."

Leibovitz has said she welcomes age and learns from it.

"I think it's not talked about enough, how interesting it is," she said. "It is really exciting. And you – it doesn't mean you're gonna necessarily take a better photograph. But you know what you're doing. And it's just great. I love it. I just love it."