After the shocking assassination of John Lennon, thousands of mourners gathered spontaneously outside his and Yoko Ono’s Central Park West apartment building, the Dakota. Tens of thousands more gathered six days later in New York, Liverpool and other world cities to honor Yoko’s request for a silent, 10-minute vigil in John’s memory. Radio airwaves were saturated with Beatles’ songs during the weeks that followed, as well as with John’s most recent recordings, one of which—”(Just Like) Starting Over”—became a posthumous #1 hit in late December.
By late January, the inauguration of Ronald Reagan and the release of the American hostages in Iran had pushed accounts of Lennon’s death and the massive public response to it from newspaper headlines. Then, on January 22, 1981, Rolling Stone magazine’s John Lennon tribute issue hit newsstands, featuring a cover photograph of a naked John Lennon curled up in a fetal embrace of a fully clothed Yoko Ono. The iconic Annie Leibovitz portrait would become the definitive image of perhaps the most photographed married couple in music history.
The now-famous photograph of John and Yoko is all the more poignant for having been taken on the morning of December 8, 1980, just twelve hours before Lennon’s death. Sent by Rolling Stone to capture an image of Lennon alone for a planned upcoming cover, Leibovitz had to negotiate the issue with John. Leibovitz recalled years later that Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner “never told me what to do, but this time he did. He told me, ‘Please get me some pictures without [Yoko].’ Then I walk in, and the first thing [Lennon] says to me is ‘I want to be with her.’” An angry Leibovitz reluctantly agreed to John’s request, and the image she captured proved to be one of her most famous—one that Lennon told her on the spot had “captured [his] relationship with Yoko perfectly.”
While the famous Rolling Stone image is sometimes called the final photograph of Lennon, it is in fact only the final portrait of him and Yoko together. The final photo of John was taken a few hours after Leibovitz’s, by a fan waiting outside the Dakota. That photo captured John immediately after signing an autograph for Mark David Chapman, the man who would shoot him dead some six hour later.