It is a classic Annie Leibovitz photograph. Indeed, it displays all of her trademark flourishes: a group shot of recognisable faces, each one striking an individual pose, the whole thing brought to life through a bold use of light in order to create the highly stylised, almost cinematic quality of the final image.
But this is not the glossy portrait of Hollywood A-listers one might expect her to produce. Instead, it is the new "leading ladies" advertising campaign for M&S, featuring Doreen Lawrence and Emma Thompson among others. Such is the magic of Leibovitz's touch that, under her gaze, a shop traditionally associated with sensible knicker gussets and easy-wash nighties has become ineffably more glamorous.
Leibovitz's photographs are not only visually arresting but profoundly aspirational. During the course of her 40-year career, she has photographed just about everyone you could think of – President Obama, John Lennon, even the Queen. Her reputation is such that if you have a portrait taken by Leibovitz, you get a credibility makeover thrown in for free – and that goes for M&S as much as anyone.
When Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, that much-satirised celebrity couple, were given their first American Vogue cover last month, they immediately asked for Leibovitz. The photographer was said to be reluctant at first, but the amount of money on offer was apparently too tempting to turn down. The resulting shots managed to make two of the most photographed people on the planet look enigmatic, glossy, romantic and ethereal. No matter how staged the images were or how much effort had gone into the studio production, Leibovitz's pictures seemed also to offer us a glimpse into the couple's intimacy, even, perhaps, a small sense of their vulnerability.
"She has developed a style that is literally all of its own," says Michael Pritchard, director-general of the Royal Photographic Society. "Her work is very distinctive. She's got a way of composing her photographs and working with her subjects and I think the fact that she's a woman is important because she has a particular empathy with her subjects that sustains her work."
As a result, Leibovitz is now one of the most highly paid and sought-after photographers in the world. Her collaboration with Vanity Fair since the 1980s (on a yearly contract with Condé Nast rumoured to be worth somewhere between $2m and $5m) has produced many of that magazine's best-known covers – a heavily pregnant Demi Moore in 1991, a nude Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightly draped becomingly over the designer Tom Ford in 2006 and the famed annual fold-out covers featuring a line-up of Hollywood talent. Graydon Carter, Vanity Fair's editor, says she has the ability "to make boring white men who have desk jobs look epic". Quentin Tarantino recalls being photographed by her in 1994 and ending up looking "like James Dean or something. And I'm a guy who doesn't look like James Dean".
The critic Jonathan Jones claimed that Leibovitz was "one of the most aesthetically gifted photographers alive", whose 2007 portrait of the Queen, in particular, transcended the "glib, dishonest hacks like Lord Snowdon or Mario Testino" because of its depth, nuance and humanity.
But Leibovitz's idealised, heroic imagery also has its detractors. Her critics say she is too in love with the gratuitous excess and superficiality of modern celebrity, that her photographs are digitally manipulated and post-produced to such an extent that it's difficult to know where the true artistry lies. The Australian art critic John McDonald has noted that Leibovitz's work can be "strongly formulaic – an occupational hazard for a sought-after portraitist who has to keep coming up with one killer image after another for a magazine cover. This goes beyond the call of art and takes us on to the assembly line".
Leibovitz was born in Waterbury, Connecticut, in 1949, the third of six children. Her mother, Marilyn, was a dance instructor and her father, Samuel, a lieutenant colonel in the US air force. Her father's job meant Leibovitz had an itinerant childhood. She came to rely on her siblings because the friends she made were temporary: "I never even knew you saw people again… I do see a parallel with taking pictures – you go in for a quick study and you get out."
She went on to study painting at the San Francisco Art Institute before discovering a passion for photography. Her boyfriend at the time encouraged her to send an image of Allen Ginsberg at a peace rally to the newly founded Rolling Stone magazine. By 1973, Leibovitz was the magazine's chief photographer and her images of celebrities, such as the extraordinary dual portrait of John Lennon and Yoko Ono taken hours before Lennon was shot dead on the street, helped define the publication's unique look.
She went on tour with the Rolling Stones in 1975, developing a cocaine habit along the way that ended with her in rehab. Clean of the drugs, Leibovitz channelled the addict's compulsiveness into the quality of her work. Her set-ups became ever more elaborate. She paid little attention to budgets – losing cameras, abandoning rental cars, mislaying envelopes stuffed with thousands of dollars. When she went to Vanity Fair in 1983, the shoots became even more bloated, each one as complex and fantastical as a film set.
"She could never quite relax because she was afraid there was an even better idea," recalled her former assistant, the photographer Andrew Eccles in a 2009 piece for New York magazine. "The anxiousness about whether a photograph was going to be good enough was hard to be around. It was a difficult way to live."
And yet no one could deny that it resulted in a succession of arresting images: Whoopi Goldberg in a bath of milk, heated to the perfect temperature by a host of assistants in 1984; Jeff Koons dressed as a flying monkey with Keira Knightley as Dorothy in a 2005 Wizard of Oz-themed shoot; Johnny Depp and Patti Smith as Disney pirates balancing on the rigging in front of a brooding horizon in 2011.
She possessed an innate capacity to get celebrities to do what she wanted. Often, this involved a metaphorical and literal disrobing. For a shoot with William Hurt, Leibovitz travelled to his parents' home in New Jersey. She shot through the night until the actor was left posing in nothing more than his underpants at 7am the next day. Her portrait of a 15-year-old Miley Cyrus for Vanity Fair in 2008 attracted controversy for featuring the child star topless, her modesty covered by a rumpled sheet. Leibovitz was forced to defend the image as "very beautiful".
Along with professional success came personal happiness. Leibovitz was introduced to the author and intellectual Susan Sontag in the mid-80s. They were lovers until Sontag's death from uterine cancer in 2004. During this time, Leibovitz became a mother to three children in her 50s – a daughter, Sarah,