Creator or Destroyer: Photography, Drugs, and Substance Abuse

Drug and alcohol addiction often go hand in hand with art. Painting has Van Gogh and Pollock, poetry has Coleridge and Ginsburg, music has The Beatles and Jim Morrison, and novels have Burroughs and Welsh. I was, however, surprised by how little information I could find about photographers’ substance abuse. Where are the in-depth books about photographers that were inspired or crushed by their addictions? 

Important Message

Before getting started, if you are addicted to alcohol or drugs, please consider reaching out to your local or national help centers for support:  

If you need help locating assistance programs where you are, I’d be happy to help you search. If you have other resources that you’d like to share, please leave them in the comments for others to seek support. 

The Other Arts 


The history of painting is littered with artists who were heavily involved with drugs. Absinthe, opium derivatives, and other narcotics have inspired and destroyed generations of painters, from Van Gogh and Manet to Basquiat and Pollock.  


Writers have likely used and battled substance abuse even more than their painter brethren. From William Blake and Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Anais NinErnst Hemingway, and William S. Burroughs, to more modern writers like Hunter S. ThompsonStephen King, and Irving Welsh, the creativity of each of these writers was in part fueled by their drug of choice.  

Music, more than any other artistic endeavor, is full of those who drew inspiration from substance abuse. Just think about The Beatles’ psychedelics, Queen’s and the Rolling Stones’ binge-fueled extravagance, and Bob Dylan’s marijuana-infused music. Of course, this doesn’t even account for musicians that imploded under the weight of drugs, like Jim Morrison, Chet Baker, Keith Moon, and Miles Davis to name but a few. The list seems almost endless. 

Where Are the Photographers? 

Having read Helmut Newton’s autobiography, I was aware of how often a younger Newton participated in wild parties. At least in part, these experiences contributed to his hypersexualized style. Having read and re-read Patricia Bosworth’s Diane Arbus biography, I’ve come to understand how the bedfellows of substance abuse and depression led to her unique worldview focusing on the marginalized other. Aside from a few big names, it’s been hard to find out about photographers whose lives were, at least for a point in time, dominated by drugs. It’s even more difficult to find a detailed analysis of the effects of drugs on these photographers.

The Link Between Drugs and Creativity 

I think it’s important to discuss whether or not drugs can fuel creativity. Do these substances help artists unleash their creative spirit? To see into the life of things, so to speak? Perhaps drugs offer them the confidence to explore ideas they would otherwise shy away from?  

There are many books about the intersection of addiction and creativity. David Linden’s study, The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good, suggests that although there is no direct link between creativity and addiction, there is a link between addiction and the factors that promote creativity. In plain language, those who are artists don’t need drugs to create their art, but those that create art tend towards an addictive personality. I’d note that Linden is an amateur photographer, for those that are interested. 

There are dozens of studies that show that creation requires dedication and concentration. There are just as many studies that show that drug use actually reduces overall artistic output. That makes sense to me. I’m much less likely to set up a new lighting scheme if I’m a bit hungover. 

That being said, from an anecdotal point of view, I can’t see how Thompson would have come up with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas without the drug use. There’s no way Burroughs conjures up his Naked Lunch version of Marrakech without his drugs. I doubt The Beatles would have come up with Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band without partaking in some psychedelics. Likewise, Bob Dylan’s protest-rock view of a crumbling America comes served with a cloud of pot smoke. In these examples, substance abuse seems to have provided a creative spark (even if it also eventually caused problems for the artists).

Related, without his personal heroin experiences, Welsh doesn’t write Trainspotting. Writing Trainspotting requires an insight into a world most of us will, thankfully, never have. I don’t think that King would be able to compare horror and addiction in The Shining with such clarity without having suffered at the doorstep of addiction personally. To be clear, I don’t think that either Welsh or King would claim that their trips were their inspiration. But, without them, without fighting their own addiction battles, they don’t end up being the writers they are today. 

So, where then are the photographers? Those whose substance abuse provided a creative spark or those whose addiction gave them insights into a world they wanted to share (or warn us about) through their photography? 

For lack of better terms, I’m going to talk about photographers who were inspired or assisted by the drugs they took and photographers whose work and life was damaged by the bleakness their addiction. As you’ll see, these categories often overlap.  

Annie Leibovitz 

According to those around her, as well as Leibovitz herself, her drug use was excessive.  

Joining Rolling Stone Magazine and working with a mentor like Hunter S. Thompson, it was unlikely that Leibovitz could have avoided the pull of drugs. Legend has it that even the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, a notorious drug user, was in awe of Lebovitz’s consumption. Joe Hagen’s book about Jann Wenner, one of the Stones’ creators, Sticky Fingers, notes that Leibovitz’s drug use resulted in serious physical damage. Hagen claims that Leibovitz was dumped in front of hospitals by her dealers numerous times while she toured with the band through 1975.    

Leibovitz was once quoted as saying that while she went on tour with the Stones in 1975, it took 8 years for her to come down [from the trip].  

Leibovitz toured with several bands during that era. Her behind-the-scenes work could only come from someone who was completely accepted by her subjects. Certainly, partaking in the drug culture helped Leibovitz to get in tight with her subjects, to become one of the band so to speak. As she puts it: 

…if you’re a really good journalist, you become part of what you’re doing; that’s the best way to take photos. 


…there’s a certain high price to pay in being that engaged. 

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John Lennon and Yoko Ono, New York, NY, 1980

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However costly her addiction was, the  photographs she took during her time with Rolling Stone are some of the most famous rock n’ roll images to come out of the 70s. This ability to put her subjects at ease by participating in the ongoing drug culture put Leibovitz on the map. Later, it was this aura of comfort and ease that gave the confidence of her subjects in her ability to really see them. This trust and confidence have become the hallmark of her celebrity photography. For a portrait photographer, trust is the most important commodity.  

Michael Cooper 

Marianne Faithfull once said of Cooper :

[He is a] lay saint [who] hovered over the scene with a single-lens-reflex eye, invisibly ever-present. 

Delving into the stories of Cooper’s life feels a lot like a movie. In fact, if you’ve seen Blow-up, the extravagant main character is based on Cooper. He was friends with and photographer to notorious drug users and cultural icons like The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Warhol, Dennis Hopper, Burroughs, and Ginsburg. Almost a who’s who of the 60s drug culture. Flipping through articles about him, you find stories about drives in the English Moors with the Stones on LSD, about the narcotics raid at Redlands, or tripping out with movie insiders while putting together the first treatment for A Clockwork Orange that was eventually passed on to Stanley Kubrick.  

Once you read a bit about Cooper’s life and substance abuse, it’s no surprise that his collaboration with The Beatles, Peter Blake, and Jann Haworth resulted in the psychedelic cover for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It’s interesting to note that his work with The Beatles is similar in concept to his other famous LP cover, this time for the Stones: Their Satanic Majesties’ Request. Together, these two record covers have come to represent the psychedelic drug culture of the 60s as much as tie-dye and Timothy Leary.  

Cooper’s story doesn’t have a happy ending. He ended up taking his own life in 1973 at 31 years old — under a cloud of depression and heroin. The drugs may have expanded Cooper’s creativity, but they also contributed to his eventual addiction and death. 

Bert Stern 

According to Michael Gross, who wrote Focus, a bestseller about fashion photography’s golden age, Stern’s famous photographs of Marilyn Monroe were  

 …fueled by a case of 1953 Dom Pérignon champagne, Monroe’s favorite, Château Lafite Rothschild, and vodka.

These famous, drunken-haze-like photographs were actually the last images of Monroe before her overdose-related death.  

Throughout his career, Stern was a busy photographer. He photographed 41 Vogue covers and reportedly charged up to $20,000 a day — in the 70s. In addition to drinking, Stern had started taking amphetamines as early as 1957 to fuel his legendary productivity. At one point, those who remember the best talk about Stern receiving Tiffany’s ubiquitous turquoise boxes full of drugs while he was on set. 

If drugs drove Stern’s productivity and alcohol helped him to create the moody images he is most famous for, they are also responsible for his ultimate downward spiral. 

Eventually, this abuse led to Stern being committed to a psychiatric facility, which he promptly broke out of. With that in mind, it’s somewhat ironic that Stern made money by shooting The Pill Book in 1979.  


Gross’s Focus also shares the stories he was told about how Newton, famous for his hyper-erotic and fetishized images, together with his wife, June (Alice Springs), hatched many of his visions in late-night alcohol-and nicotine-fueled conversations. 

Looking back at Newton’s work, it doesn’t seem that he was the type of guy that needed help to shed his inhibitions. Like most critics of Newton’s verge on hagiography (count me among them), there is no clear picture of his substance use and the effect it had on his work. The darkness of his drug use is left out; most writing on Newton instead favors discussions about his images. 

Dash Snow 

Snow’s eclectic, more accurately frantic, art is a perfect example of drug use informing an artist’s worldview. It’s well known that a lot of what Snow created was done under the influence of one substance or another. 

Not strictly a photographer, Snow’s multimedia creations often revolved around instant film photography. Snow is quoted frequently as explaining that his photography was initially a way for him to remember the places he had been while he consumed to the point of blacking out. Museum and gallery curators around the world note that Snow’s images are a form of self-imposed addiction intervention. A way to force his sober self to face the messes his intoxicated self would wind up in. It’s often said that Snow’s work showcases what he would have called discarded beauty. This analysis certainly fits into the sometimes romantic view of drug use that finds beauty in the lost struggle. 

Without drugs, Snow’s work would likely have looked very different. Without the drugs, his life would certainly have taken a different turn, as he died from an overdose at 27 in 2009. Not as romantic as the critics’ review of his life’s work would have you believe.  

Larry Clark 

Clark first rose to prominence with his monograph Tulsa.  Tulsa is notorious for exposing sex, violence, and drug use rampant in the youth culture of the 1960s. Tulsa surprised America by showing that hardcore drug culture existed in suburbia just as it did in America’s growing urban wastelands.  

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The introduction to Tulsa reads: 

When I was 16, I started shooting amphetamine. I shot with my friends every day for three years and then left town, but I’ve gone back through the years. Once the needle goes in, it never comes out.  

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Skips First Shot, #Tulsa – 1971

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Clark’s experiences with drugs and photography forever changed the way that drug culture is thought of. Although some, as we’ll see in a moment, got the wrong message, it’s hard to look at Tulsa and not see the destruction and dangers associated with drug abuse.  

Clark still struggles with his addictions. Clark often speaks about the temptations of his addiction and continues to make films about drugs that are intended to act like a flashing warning sign.  

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Nan Goldin 

Much in the vein of Clark’s Tulsa, Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency forms what Goldin calls:

…a diary I let people read. 

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Greer ( Lankton) on her bed, Bowery 1982

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Focusing on the drug culture of New York City’s Bowery neighborhood, The Ballad uncovers the violent and seedy side of drug use. Goldin is very candid that her fascination with drug culture almost ended her life. As she put it: 

I had a totally romantic notion of being a junkie. I wanted to be one. 

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Trixie on the cot NY 1979

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Goldin has spent most of her life fighting her own addictions and has found a calling in fighting the current opioid epidemic around the planet. You can find out about her cause at PAIN

 Diane Arbus 

Arbus is famous for her work depicting people and communities living on the margins. It’s only logical that Arbus herself often told those around her that she felt herself on the edge. 

I go up and down a lot. Maybe I’ve always been like that. Partly what happens though is I get filled with energy and joy and I begin lots of things or think about what I want to do and get all breathless with excitement, and then, quite suddenly, either through tiredness or a disappointment or something more mysterious, the energy vanishes, leaving me harassed, swamped, distraught, frightened by the very things I thought I was so eager for! I’m sure this is quite classic. 

Looking at the darkness in her work or reading about the darkness in her life (I’d recommend Bosworth’s biography of Arbus), it’s no big surprise that Arbus struggled with depression and dependence. In the end, Arbus took her own life, overdosing on barbiturates and slitting her wrists at 48. 

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The photo shows a boy, with the left strap of his jumper awkwardly hanging off his shoulder, tensely holding his long, thin arms by his side. Clenched in his right hand is a toy grenade, and his left hand is held in a claw-like gesture; his facial expression is maniacal. Diane Arbus captured this photograph by having the boy stand while moving around him, claiming she was trying to find the right angle. The boy became impatient and told her to “Take the picture already!”. His expression conveys his exasperation and impatience with the whole endeavor, as the contact sheet for the shoot reveals. In other pictures, he is seen as a happy child. The boy in the photograph is Colin Wood, son of tennis player Sidney Wood. An original print of the photograph sold for $408,000 in April 2005 at Christie’s New York. ❤️📷👀💣

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This seems to me to be the very definition of Linden’s theory. It wasn’t the drugs that helped Arbus see the world, but maybe it was the way she saw the world that pulled her to drugs. 

Davide Sorrenti 

Critics agree that Sorrenti, who was inspired by the work of Golding and Clark, helped to create what would come to be called heroin chic. 

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Milla Jovovich by Davide Sorrenti

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Supported by major fashion brands around the world, Sorrenti’s (and his contemporaries’) work, at least for a time, seems to have missed the point that Golding and Clark were trying to make. Instead of using their photographs to help understand the cost of dependency, the fashion industry used their images and related motifs to sell clothing through a confused lens of aspiration.  

Sorrenti died young from chronic health problems. However, most of those closest to him say his health problems were greatly exacerbated by his drug use. 

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Photo by Davide Sorrenti. #davidesorrenti #photography

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In response to her son’s death, Francesca Sorrenti campaigned against the glamorization of drug addiction and the image of underage models:

Heroin chic isn’t what we’re projecting. It’s what we are. Our business has become heroin chic. Someone taking pictures of that magnitude has to have experienced hard drugs…  

Amy Spindler of The New York Times pointed out that the quick turn about from the heroin chic style of fashion photography after Sorrenti’s death indicated that the big fashion houses were in part complicit in this tragedy. Spindler suggests that the fashion houses knew what the costs of Sorrenti’s type of images were, but they ignored it in favor of their own commercial gain until he died. Instead of facing their association with Sorrenti’s images, they moved on as quickly and quietly as possible.  

There’s a recent documentary about Sorrenti called See Know Evil from Charlie Curran. Curran’s documentary suggests that because fashion photography is typically aspirational, photographers that use the darker aspects of drug use as part of the creative process often find their process marginalized. 

I wonder if this is why we hear less about drugs in photography than other arts. Photography, if you will, is a widely democratic art, one that is at its foundation a way to remember or seek out aspirational moments. This warm glow is unlikely to blend well with the darkness or rebellious nature of substance abuse. Instead, we sweep it under the rug instead of talking about it.  

I doubt that artists will stop turning to substances for inspiration or comfort. Perhaps talking about it would at least reduce the number of lives lost to addiction.  

I wanted to remind you that if you are experiencing substance abuse or addiction issues that there are supports available.


Please remember, if you need help locating assistance programs where you are, I’d be happy to pitch in with your search. Or, if you have other resources that you’d like to share, please leave them in the comments for others to seek support. 

Lead image from the cover of Bert Stern’s Last Sitting from All images used either in the Public Domain or used under Fair Use.


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