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Visual Culture

How Annie Leibovitz Perfectly Captured Yoko and John’s Relationship

On December 8, 1980, took the most iconic photograph in rock ’n’ roll history. Shot for Rolling Stone, the picture features artist lying supine on a cream carpet, wearing blue jeans and a black, long-sleeved shirt. Her long, dark tresses fan around her head as she turns towards her husband, . The former, late Beatles singer is nude, curled in a fetal position around his wife. Eyes closed, he kisses her cheek and frames her head with his arm.
Hours after Leibovitz took her tender Polaroid, a jealous former security guard named Mark David Chapman fatally shot Lennon outside his building, the Dakota, on New York’s Upper West Side. When Rolling Stone published Leibovitz’s photograph on its January 22, 1981, cover, Ono was a widow and the world was mourning the legendary rock star. The picture ultimately documented the celebrity couple’s last hours together, and perhaps a depiction of their final kiss. In 2019, it still stands as one of history’s greatest images of both love and loss.
Fourteen years earlier, Lennon had become Rolling Stone’s first-ever cover star. In 1967, publication co-founder Jann Wenner needed a striking picture for his inaugural issue. He was running out of time when he spotted a publicity shot for the British film How I Won the War (1967). It featured its co-star, Lennon, wearing a net-covered pith helmet with his lips pursed in a whistle. The Beatles had recently released the critically acclaimed Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the shot of the charismatic singer was sure to sell more than a few magazines. “It was a day before deadline,” Wenner recalled in 2017. “This was the best thing we had on hand. It was incredibly fortuitous, symbolic, and prophetic of the future.”
Ono and Lennon had met back in 1966 at London’s Indica Gallery, where Ono had mounted an exhibition titled “Unfinished Paintings and Objects.” The conceptual projects she presented included the now famous Ceiling Painting, Yes Painting(1966), which requires a viewer to climb a ladder and look through a magnifying glass at the word “YES.”
The pair quickly became creative partners, making their own music. In 1968, they appeared together, for the first time, on the cover of Rolling Stone. The cover story promoted a new project: an experimental record called Unfinished Music 1: Two Virgins.
Capitol Records, according to writer Joe Hagan, had rejected the duo’s preferred album cover photograph, in which they embraced nude in front of a vague domestic scene featuring a lamp and ruffled blankets. Wenner asked the Beatles’s press secretary to use the picture for the one-year anniversary cover of his magazine. According to Hagan, the choice helped double Wenner’s sales.
Lennon and Wenner’s relationship deepened in December 1970, when the singer granted the publisher his first interview since the Beatles had broken up earlier that year. Wenner asked Lennon how he realized that he was working towards a solo career, instead of pursuing a future with his band. “I don’t believe in it. The dream is over,” Lennon said. “I’m not just talking about the Beatles, I’m talking about the generation thing. It’s over, and we gotta—I have to personally—get down to so-called reality.” Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot just two years ago, while the Vietnam War was still raging. The hippie era and its dreams of peace and equality were dying. Lennon’s words reflect the country’s larger sense of loss.
A decade later, when Leibovitz was commissioned as a rising photographer to capture Lennon, Wenner asked her to photograph him in a way that recalled the Two Virgins photograph, but without Ono. The new shoot would also commemorate the 10th anniversary of the men’s major interview.
But when Leibovitz arrived at the Dakota to photograph Lennon, he refused to be photographed without his wife—and history was made. While Lennon stripped, as he had in the original shoot, Ono wanted to keep her clothes on. The decision contributed to the picture’s strangeness, and the self-possession that Ono radiates in photograph.
Despite its place in the pop culture pantheon, Leibovitz’s photograph remains a simple, startlingly intimate shot of a couple in love. According to Leibovitz, when Lennon saw the Polaroid, he said to her: “This is it. This is our relationship.”
Alina Cohen