Born in Waterbury, Connecticut, on October 2, 1949, Anna-Lou Leibovitz is the third of six children of Marilyn Edith (née Heit) and Samuel Leibovitz. She is a third-generation American; her father's parents were Romanian Jews. Her mother was a modern dance instructor of Estonian-Jewish heritage. Her father was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force. The family moved frequently with her father's duty assignments, and she took her first pictures when he was stationed in the Philippines during the Vietnam War. She took photographs around the military base and of nearby locals. Leibovitz's passion of art was born out of her mother's engagement with dance, music, and painting.
At Northwood High School in Silver Spring, Maryland, she became interested in various artistic endeavors and began to write and play music. She attended the San Francisco Art Institute, where she studied painting with the intention of becoming an art teacher. At school, she had her first photography workshop and changed her major after to photography. She was inspired by the work of Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson, which her school educated about. For several years, she continued to develop her photography skills while holding various jobs, including a stint on a kibbutz in Amir, Israel, for several months in 1969.
When Leibovitz returned to the United States in 1970, she started her career as staff photographer, working for Rolling Stone magazine. In 1973, publisher Jann Wenner named Leibovitz chief photographer of Rolling Stone, a job she would hold for 10 years. Leibovitz worked for the magazine until 1983, and her intimate photographs of celebrities helped define the Rolling Stone look.
While working for Rolling Stone, Leibovitz learned that she could work for magazines and still create personal work, of her family which for her was the most important. “You don’t get the opportunity to do this kind of intimate work except with the people you love, the people who will put up with you. They’re the people who open their hearts and souls and lives to you. You must take care of them.”
She was awarded The Royal Photographic Society's Centenary Medal and Honorary Fellowship (HonFRPS) in recognition of a sustained, significant contribution to the art of photography in 2009.