Creator or Destroyer: Photography, Drugs, and Substance Abuse

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 


Vincent Van Gogh, Starry Night. Public Domain. From Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum.

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.  


William Blake, The Great Red Dragon. Public Domain.

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.  

Ralph Steadman's cover to Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. From Amazon listing.

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. 

Cover of The Door's Morrison Hotel. Shot by Henry Diltz. From Amazon listing.

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.

Cover of Patricia Bosworth's biography of Diane Arbus. Cover image shot by Doon Arbus. From Amazon listing.

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. 

William Burroughs' Naked Lunch, as adapted by David Cronenberg. From the Amazon listing.

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. 

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. 

Album cover for The Beatles' Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. Shot by Michael Cooper. From Amazon Listing.

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. 

Cover for the Rolling Stones' Their Satantic Majesties' Request. Shot by Michael Cooper. From Amazon listing.

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.

Cover of Bert Stern's Spanish language version of The Final Sitting. From Amazon listing.

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. 

The Pill Book. Shot by Bert Stern. From Amazon listing.

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. 

Cover for Helmut Newton's Sex and Landscapes. From Amazon listing.

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. 

Polaroid by Dash Snow. From Amazon listing.

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 

Cover to Larry Clark's Tulsa. From Amazon listing.

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.  

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.  

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.  

Nan Goldin 

Cover to Nan Goldin's The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. From Amazon listing.

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. 

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. 

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

Diane Arbus cover. From Amazon listing.

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. 

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. 

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. 

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.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Mark is a Toronto based commercial photographer and world traveller who gave up the glamorous life of big law to take pictures for a living.

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In the grand scheme of things, nobody cares about photographers relative to painters, writers, and musicians.

There are barely any books about photographers, period.

We do, don't we?

I know I buy a lot of books (still) - about photographers, and, about their work. Within reach right now, I have auto/biographies of Liebovitz, Newton, Arbus, Riefenstahl, Sherman, and Cartier-Bresson as well as Coddington, who swirls around photographers. On top of that, I have at least 15-20 monographs.

There are certainly dozens and dozens of documentaries about photographers, but they rarely talk about the substance abuse in any significant way.

There is a market, as much as their is a market for say, Egon Schiele, who has his fair share of critical books.

The point is, I can go buy 100 different books about Led Zeppelin or Picasso or Shakespeare. I can't do that for Richard Avedon or Irving Penn or Edward Steichen. The photo book market is tiny, and it's mostly monographs (though I own hundreds myself).

Not sure that is true. I think the same can be said about any artists today. There aren't, hardly, any books on any artists today because all the famous artists have had books about them and those calibre artists are rare. If you think most of those books were made in the 70's-90's (just for example) then there really aren't that many more books to make. The celebration of a great artist usually comes after some time in history when people can fully see the impact they had on the world.

To be fair, photography is only an infant when compared to the histories of other art forms. Photography has also had a rocky history with art curators and the "gate-keepers" to the art world. Give photography another 500 years then we can talk about the grand scheme of things (I know, that last part is a bit unfair on my part but hyperbole comes easy at midnight).

I have artist friends from high school who went on to become addicts. They never achieved much of anything at all, and are now just "burn outs"--shells of human beings who do even less now than before. On balance, I'd say drugs help you become a failure at art.

Fair comment.
I wonder what the ratio of successful vs unsuccessful artists who USE a drug, and then again, the ratio for ABUSE.

There is a long history of substance abuse by artists. I think for many the need to express themselves and to self medicate have a strong connection. There are just too many examples of incredibly successful artists in all mediums that have struggled with substance abuse. Clearly many found success at their art form despite of, or maybe in some cases because of it.

All my friends who were using and are artists have all had successful careers.

the typical lifecycle of a fashion and advertising photographer in the 90s/2000s
become famous, get insame amouts of money, invest the money into coke and alcohol, never heard about again....

Even earlier, right? Cooper was a contemporary of Avedon. Ridiculously successful and we rarely hear about him. I think without Stern's images of Monroe, he would likely have dropped off the radar as well.

hehe maybe but for this i'm to young I've seen this mostly happening to big former names in the 2000s here. Its sad. On the other side it is even worse with people from the music industry. I remember being in music studios were the one common thing was that there were absurd amounts of coke everywhere.

Agreed. Though I'd LIKE to think I'm too young to remember photographers from the 80's. I am not. ;)

I've done a lot of drugs. They were really good. Some people lose it on them though—Don't be that guy.

Moderation seems to be the way to go, again, like most things in life.

Well it's probably just different for everyone but my peak drug taking days were very far from moderate. That really wasn't ever a part of it. It expanded my consciousness and made me more empathetic of others, it gave me an invincible confidence to achieve things I wanted which I mostly have now. It did a hell of lot of things and I have very few negatives to speak of. I wouldn't trade those days for anything and I wouldn't change it all.

I shared some of that experience, but I think the things you attribute to your substance use were probably already in your reach. Some people experience, or recognize later, the negative affects of that behavior.

I can only speak for my self and those whom I know and as i said, it's different for everybody. It's just not something I won't recommend and simultaneously, it's not something I will unconditionally recommend. It's incontrovertible that some have difficulties from it and also some where it creates problems mentally and physically as a direct result from substance use and abuse.

I'm pretty sure moderation isn't the route to doing great things, otherwise you'd stop at moderate instead of great.

Valid point.

Maybe the problem is having too many things we overindulge in - can't overindulge in everything. Have to pick your vices. Certainly photography and travel are my main ones.

Nobody ever set out to become an addict...

Excellent point! Though I’d say willful blindness plays a part.

In my case and many others, self medication was a major factor. My coping skills as a young person were not up to the pain my personal demons were dishing out. Only age gave me enough perspective to put them in their proper place.

Am I the only one who wants to mention, "Almost Famous."
The Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll ethos of the late 60s and 70s was very destructive for all of us who lived through it.
Just glad I can say, lived through it.

Destructive, yes, agreed, but it also helped to create the art / music that came out of it. No?
And, great reference.

No, it does not help creativity and it is that stupid thinking that helps drive social acceptance of substance abuse. Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show song “I was stoned, and I missed it” was the story of my youth. My life was full of lost opportunities that I missed by self-medicating my internal wounds.

Creatively, when I stopped using I was comfortably photographing the street people and have no problem attacking the garbage people shovel about drugs. I let my remorse at helping fund the killing of done by drug cartels and terrorist guide me.

I have no issue at all with your comment about drug cartels and gang violence. Without drugs those entities wouldn't have the power they do. I wonder if there is a legalization issue to discuss here.

I don't think my argument regarding creativity is 'stupid.' There are more than enough artists who would be the first to admit that drugs helped them create.

All that to be said, I'm glad that you found a way save yourself from addiction.

I have heard people claim all sorts of things to justify their use of drugs. How do they know they would not have been more creative without them? Drugs are a subject that I have seen from multiple viewpoints since 1967, Cannot think of any that got off them say gee I want to go back and use drugs to be more creative. The legalization movement is full of people who have no regard for the lives of others by the very fact they are aware of the killings done by those who supply their drugs, and those lives are not as important as their high. As for me saving myself no man who is drowning because he is in over his head can save himself.

I understand your comment, I'm glad you had those who cared enough about you to help you.

What about SEX with models, that's as old as drugs.

Perhaps that's follow-up article?

Fascinating article.

I've always wondered if an artist's rise to fame is totally dependent on their body of work, or if it boosted by the pop-art world's attraction to the "troubled artist."

Thanks for reaching back in the archives for this one!
I agree we seem to be drawn to troubled artists . . . Van Gough, Morrison, Coleridge etc etc. Sometimes the story is as, or even more, important than the art.