“As much as I’m not a journalist, I use journalism. And when you photograph a relationship, it’s quite wonderful to let something unfold in front of you. I love to take family pictures for that reason because there’s a dynamic. The hardest thing to do, actually, is a single person image because then it’s just me relating to that person. So with John and Yoko I sometimes think that photograph was 10 years in the making. I’d met John Lennon when I photographed him in my twenties and had just begun working for Rolling Stone. Then, there we were in NYC in 1980. He’d just finished the album Double Fantasy, and I’d seen the cover, which was both of them kissing. I was so moved by that kiss. There was so much in that simple picture of a kiss. It wasn’t unusual to imagine them with their clothes off, because they did that all the time. But what happened was at the last minute was that Yoko didn’t want to take her clothes off. We went ahead with the shoot [and] ended up with this very striking picture. Of course, beyond all control, he was murdered that afternoon.”
On December 8, 1980, Annie Leibovitz was assigned to photograph John Lennon and Yoko Ono. She was Rolling Stone’s chief photographer at the time. Initially, Annie attempted to photograph just John alone but he insisted that Yoko be on the cover, too. Annie, inspired by the album cover of Double Fantasy, tried to recreate something like it. For the lovers’ portrait, she imagined that the two would pose together nude.
Yoko was reluctant to take her clothes off. She claimed that she could take her top off but not her pants. Disappointed, Annie asked her to just leave everything on. John, disrobed, curled up beside and wrapped himself around a fully clothed Yoko. Annie used an instant camera to capture the moment. Instantly, the three knew right away that it was a profound image. John and Yoko exclaimed to Annie, “You’ve captured our relationship exactly.”
Five hours later, he was shot outside of the Dakota Building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. The photograph was the cover of Rolling Stone‘s tribute to Lennon, and in 2005 it was chosen by the American Society of Magazine Editors as the top cover of the previous 40 years.