Annie Leibovitz: Life behind the lens

Story highlights

  • Annie Leibovitz talks about the way her work has changed public opinion
  • She may one day do all her photography on Instagram, but she's too busy right now
  • She says it's important she sets an example to her three young girls

Hong Kong (CNN)Celebrated portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz has spent decades capturing images of some of the most iconic people of our time for the covers of Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and Vogue magazines.

But for all her celebrity pull, some of her most striking work can be seen in "Women," a powerful series of images she first launched in 1999, which has strong connections to her own close female relationships.
    Surrounded by photographs from the latest iteration this work -- collected in an exhibition called "Women: New Portraits" -- Leibovitz speaks to CNN's Kristie Lu Stout about some of the seminal moments of her storied career, the transformative power of photographs and whether or not she'll join Instagram.

    Transformative moments

    From her world-famous picture of John Lennon and Yoko Ono taken hours before Lennon was shot dead, to her images of Richard Nixon's last moments in office, Leibovitz has photographed important figures at significant or transformative moments.
    Annie Leibovitz on John Lennon
    talk asia annie leibovitz spc b_00005529

      JUST WATCHED

      Annie Leibovitz on John Lennon

    MUST WATCH

    Annie Leibovitz on John Lennon 08:03
    Yet at times, Leibovitz's photos themselves have done the transforming.
    Her cover for Vanity Fair magazine of a naked, pregnant Demi Moore changed the way people perceived pregnancy and the female form, while her portraits of Caitlyn Jenner's transformation helped inform people's views of the transgender debate.
    Leibovitz says it's always easier to put these moments into perspective after they have happened -- and that she's always fascinated to see how her photographs themselves get transformed as history unfolds.
    "It's an interesting moment for me, looking back and realizing here's a photograph that has one meaning and when something like that happens -- where John was killed -- that meaning changes," she said.
    "I mean, sometimes you really do feel like a medium, you are sort of in a place at the right time and you feel like you are supposed to be there and these things sort of happen sometimes."

    Female form

    Among the subjects dotted throughout Leibovitz's weighty portfolio of work, strong women feature prominently. It's a focus that began more than 15 years ago with her seminal "Women" project -- a series of photos born out of a collaboration with her close confidante, author Susan Sontag, in 1999.
    Annie Leibovitz  - getting intimate with icons
    talk asia annie leibovitz spc c_00005310

      JUST WATCHED

      Annie Leibovitz - getting intimate with icons

    MUST WATCH

    Annie Leibovitz - getting intimate with icons 08:22
    Her current exhibition combines her old work with her new and presents pictures of some of the world's most accomplished women -- Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, Burmese politician Aung San Suu Kyi and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg -- next to her older but equally powerful images of showgirls, teachers and coalminers.
    Leibovitz tells CNN that although she missed Sontag's ability to translate the meaning behind her new photographs into words -- the author died of leukemia in 2004 -- writer and activist Gloria Steinem stepped in to help with the context, complementing Sontag's influence.
    "When the show went up for the first time in London. I definitely felt Susan's presence, I think she would have been very proud of this moment."
    She may be proud of her work now, but Leibovitz says she was initially against the idea of a photographic series on women, considering it "too broad of a subject."
    "I thought it was like going out to photograph the sea or the ocean, and it wasn't going to be possible to really get a hook into it," she says.
    As it turns out, it's produced some of her most acclaimed work and also helped her on her own journey as a mother.
    "I have three young girls I am bringing up and so I feel it's really important to set an example for them. And I do that by my work."

    Digital transition

    When it comes to setting examples, Leibovitz also weighs into the recent debate around the digital transformation of images through Photoshop and airbrushing.
    Leibovitz: Amy Schumer 'knows what she's doing'
    Leibovitz: Amy Schumer 'knows what she's doing'

      JUST WATCHED

      Leibovitz: Amy Schumer 'knows what she's doing'

    MUST WATCH

    Leibovitz: Amy Schumer 'knows what she's doing' 01:47
    While she says she believes it is "wrong" if retouching leaves someone looking different to reality, Leibovitz also thinks people need to relax and understand that some degree of digital manipulation is a "tool" for professional photographers, just like the work that used to be done in dark rooms.
    "Thank God for people like Amy Schumer sort of toeing the line or Lena Dunham toeing the line and saying, 'that's it ... don't make me look like someone I don't.' I strongly believe people should look like what they look like," she says.
    "Does that mean that stuff isn't done? There isn't a (magazine) cover that goes out where stuff isn't done."
    Leibovitz may have been quick to embrace digital photography, but it turns out she's not as quick with social media, saying she's too busy to join photograph-sharing platform Instagram.
    "I've watched Amy Schumer's Instagram and it's brilliant but it's like it's a full time job and I like to do everything well," she says, adding that she could one day do everything on Instagram "when things slow down a little bit."
    But don't hold your breath. With Mexico City the next stop for her 10-city "Women: New Portraits exhibition tour, Leibovitz doesn't appear to be slowing down anytime soon."