In 1970, three years after co-founding Rolling Stone, Jann Wenner hired 21-year-old Annie Liebovitz as a staff photographer; her work impressed, and in 1973 she was named “Chief Photographer” at the title. Nine years later, by which time the magazine had become widely read — thanks in some small part to Leibovitz’s numerous iconic cover shots — the following exchange took place between the two, in respect to her contract.
March 1, 1982
To: Jann Wenner
From: Annie Leibovitz
This document will serve as a letter of understanding between us for the next 20-25 covers over the next year.
Rolling Stone assignments will have priority commitment.
Rules of the cover will be discussed and fought over with each issue.
I will try to act as promptly and as reasonable as possible.
I will try to act on my best behavior.
And I will discourage the use of my photographs in any publications other than Rolling Stone on any regular basis.
I am the Chief Photographer.
March 2, 1982
745 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10151
Your letter of March 1, 1982, is not exactly what I had in mind, but it’s getting close.
There are two points that remain to be clarified before increasing your fees; and both points bear directly on this matter.
1) Rules of the Cover: The basic rule — salability on newsstands depends, insofar as the photo, on subject recognizability — is not open to discussion, let alone being “fought over each issue.” Highest possible newsstand sales is the primary purpose of the cover, and recognizability is a final judgment that I make.
The elements that do — and don’t — go into recognizability are obvious — the standard facts of big heads, open eyes, strong colors, etc. — apply to at least 70% of the covers — and the natural exceptions are also obvious.
A bad cover due to limited or difficult recognizability — just like a bad cover due to poor choice of subject like Bill Hurt or Bob Hope — cuts newsstand sales somewhere between 25,000 to 50,000 copies, which translates to a $15,000 to $30,000 direct loss in company profits.
Therefore, any exception to the rules — and there are several good reasons (moral, artistic, bribery) to make them every now and then — must be discussed in advance. In the rare occasion when we can’t, you can try the experiment only if you also do a safety back-up in the conventional mode.
In other words, I am open to and in favor of changes, experiments and new ideas, but the final decision to risk $15-30,000 in profits is mine, and mine alone.
2) Other Publications: “Discourage” is subject to different interpretations between us. “Priority commitment to Rolling Stone assignments” and delivering the full potential in quality and value of the Chief Photographer means that you definitely not publish — as a “featured” photographer in any other magazine on an every issue basis.
I do not want to restrict your income opportunities — and thus am raising your fees to compensate partially — but the intent of my point here is clear and each of us knows where that line is drawn that gets you money and gets me exclusivity and the best work!
A few other points:
a) There has to be a stricter and longer embargo to U.S. re-publication of Rolling Stone photos in the U.S. — at least a year, with mutual agreement for exceptions.
b) Our daily and normal financial dealings will be through Mark Lipsky instead of directly with you, and will be done in a totally businesslike manner.
c) I’m planning to give you an office again at Rolling Stone in respect to all this because of your commitment “to act on your best behavior.”
If all these points are agreeable and in addition to your March 1, 1982, letter comprise our “letter of understanding” between us, please sign two copies of this and return them to me and your rates for work undertaken on the 20-25 covers for the next year will be $2500 fee per cover, $3200 for each cover with one significant inside shot, and standard rates for additional shots.
I am the boss,
(Signed, ‘Jann Wenner’)
Jann S. Wenner
Editor & Publisher
I am the Chief Photographer.
Agreed: (Signed, ‘Annie Leibovitz’)
Date: March 4, 1981