Karen Mulligan: 23 Years Inside the Annie Leibovitz Studio

When Karen Mulligan moved to New York City in 1991, she never imagined standing inside the White House on the last day of Barack Obama’s presidency, working with Annie Leibovitz to commemorate the moment in American history. “How lucky am I that I get to do a job that I love and this is something that’s part of it?” Mulligan says.

Mulligan’s path could not have been foretold. After studying English literature and art history at Sophie Newcomb at Tulane University, Mulligan came to New York, worked as an editorial assistant at Zagat Survey, and pictured herself as an English Professor in a cozy rural town. Upon receiving her Masters in English Literature from NYU, she was less romanticized by the academy and needed a job. A good friend, who was working for Annie Leibovitz at the time, told her the legendary portrait photographer was working on Women and needed someone to do research for the book.

Karen Mulligan’s Old Office © Kathryn Macleod

She went in for an interview, got the job, and started working for Leibovitz in April 1997. After several months working on the book, Leibovitz called Mulligan into her office and invited her to come on a shoot for the Harlem Girls Choir. “I just jumped into it and tried my best. I was so earnest. When I was so hell-bent on doing a good job because I was so out of my element and didn’t want anyone to know I didn’t know what I was doing,” Mulligan tells The Luupe.  

Mulligan learned fast and Leibovitz took note, inviting her to become more involved in the daily business of the studio. “Annie really believed in me. I am sure there were moments she thought, ‘Who is this person I hired? She obviously doesn’t have a photo background.’ But it didn’t matter to her. She liked that I was interested, engaged, willing to do anything, figure everything out, and problem solve.”

Karen Mulligan on set at The White House © Beau Sam

After Leibovitz completed Women in 1999, she asked Mulligan to stay on producing photoshoots in-house, coordinating on-location shoots, and liaising with Vanity Fair and Vogue, the two Conde Nast magazines under which Leibovitz was contracted. This primed Mulligan for the next stage of her career, becoming Studio Manager. She was now responsible for nearly everything related to a shoot: scheduling, liaising on editorial and commercial projects and coordinating books and exhibitions.

The cover of Women by Annie Leibovitz

This also prepared her to take on the role of Agent/Manager about five years ago. In this capacity, Mulligan focuses on the big picture aspects of the studio, bridging the business and creative sides. She works closely with clients, museums, galleries, and book publishers on budgets, scheduling, publicity, and promotions. “The job is a lot of different things and that’s why I’ve been here so long. I love doing all the things I get to work on,” Mulligan says. 

From taking the official photographs of Queen Elizabeth II on her 90th birthday to traipsing through Havana with Rihanna for a 2015 Vanity Fair cover story, Leibovitz’s signature style is always classic yet contemporary. This, Mulligan explains, is an extension of the ability to take the long view of photography as the changes come. “Annie is always on board for what that new landscape looks like, especially now,” Mulligan says. 

Karen Mulligan in Iceland © Suzanna Rees

“Print is the foundation for everything,” she adds, “but she’s figured out ways to continue to stay relevant with content in other forms whether its books and exhibitions, campaigns that are digital or social. We are constantly pushing ourselves to think outside the box. When things change so dramatically, it’s the time to take chances. The budgets of ten years ago don’t exist anymore. It forces you to be more creative and become more collaborative. You’re not just throwing money at a situation. You have to plan, step back, and think, ‘Okay, how are we going to do this?’”

Karen Mulligan in Doha © Kathryn MacLeod

After 23 years, Mulligan has witnessed radical changes to photography, publishing, and art — yet one thing remains constant and that is Leibovitz’s commitment to her work. “With Annie, she approaches every shoot exactly the same: with the same passion, interests, engagement,” Mulligan says. “Whether it’s a single portrait for 30 minutes or a five-day shoot on location, she does the same exact prep work and research in what she needs to come with the creative and her ideas. That’s why there is a continuity and a level in every photograph. She is as passionate as she was on the first day I started as she is now. She loves doing what she does.”

Mulligan notes that although the team is determined by the size of the shoot, “Annie is all about keeping it small and tight because that’s how she gets the intimacy. If it’s a single portrait it might only be her, a photo assistant, and maybe one other person. If she’s going into someone’s home or photographing them in a place that’s personal to them, she just shows up with a couple of cameras. The general mood these days is, ‘Let’s keep it authentic.’ I think that’s what people want. There is a hunger for that. They want to see real unless you are doing a fantasy kind of thing.”

Karen Mulligan in Los Angeles © Suzanna Rees

For Mulligan, the magic of working with Annie Leibovitz is in the discovery that exists in every layer of her work, from the challenges of her day-to-day responsibilities to revelation of the subjects themselves.

“For Annie, it’s about taking amazing portraits that represent the time we are living in,” Mulligan says. “I still get excited about every shoot because we’re photographing the most extraordinary people, whether they are known or unknown. There are so many people doing amazing things. It becomes very democratic. Everyone becomes the same because everyone wants the same thing for the future.”