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January 22, 2020

Jan. 22, 1981: John Lennon and Yoko Ono Appeared on Rolling Stone’s Cover – The Story Behind the Most Iconic Photograph in Rock ‘n’ Roll History

The musician John Lennon and the performance artist Yoko Ono married in 1969. It was one of the most talked about relationships of the time, not least because many fans of the Beatles blamed Yoko for the break up of the band. John was defensive about the intensity of their love, writing in the lyrics to God (1970): “I just believe in me, Yoko and me, and that’s reality.”

On December 8, 1980, Annie Leibovitz was commissioned by Rolling Stone to photograph John Lennon and Yoko Ono, as part of the promotional efforts surrounding their joint album Double Fantasy. While Leibovitz had hoped that both Lennon and Ono would pose nude, Ono was uncomfortable with shedding her clothes. But Ono’s reluctance led to a legendary improvisation. Of the experience, Leibovitz has said: “I was kinda disappointed, and I said, ‘Just leave everything on.’ We took one Polaroid, and the three of us knew it was profound right away.” When Lennon saw the Polaroid, he said to her: “This is it. This is our relationship.”

Later that evening, Lennon was shot and killed outside of his New York City apartment building. The magazine ran the haunting image (sans headlines) as its cover the following month.

This image and the other image with John nude would quickly become iconic for its timing and the manner in which it immortalized the couple’s devotion towards each other. The picture ultimately documented the celebrity couple’s last hours together, and perhaps a depiction of their final kiss. Leibovitz understands that the photo’s special status is a result of the musician’s tragic death occurring immediately after the shoot.
It’s actually an excellent example of how circumstances change a picture. Suddenly, that photograph has a story. You’re looking at it and thinking it’s their last kiss, or they’re saying goodbye. You can make up all sorts of things about it. I think it’s amazing when there’s a lot of levels to a photograph.

(Photos by Annie Leibovitz)


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