Peter Lindbergh was the most influential photographer of the supermodel era of the late 1980s. A documentary film marking his 75th birthday has just premiered in movie theaters; it traces the photographer’s path from his early beginnings as a youngster in Germany’s industrial Ruhr Region to the star photographer he became. What he particularly admires about his famous models is their courage to show themselves without makeup. “Courage,” he says, “is more interesting than nudity.”
He saunters into the room, shoulders drooping, head a little forward : Peter Lindbergh, the man who made Linda Evangelista a star and who’s on first-name terms with the big models. His most famous photo is the one of five young women on a New York street, an icon of the supermodel era. Lindbergh’s lasting contribution to the history of fashion photography is that the women in his pictures don’t just act as clothes racks – instead, he depicted them as the protagonists of tiny, imaginative stories.
Mr. Lindbergh, your fellow photographer Helmut Newton once said he looked at his models the way a farmer looked at his sacks of potatoes. In other words, less with a look of desire than with that of a professional and a producer. How would you describe your relationship with the women in front of the camera?
I see them as beautiful, complex ensembles of body and soul. I once photographed older actors for a Pirelli calendar, people like Robin Wright, Julianne Moore – 47 000 photos for 40 images, that was the ratio. No one was allowed to hide behind a role or use more than the most necessary make-up. That was far more difficult for the women than taking off their clothes.
You yourself often describe advertising photography like this: “This totally sexy culture is a catastrophe,”
the reason being that the world of commerce controls beauty. When you are 30, you are expected to take care that you don’t get any little lines on your face. What a cheek, to talk people into believing something like that! But listen up, there’s this cream that costs just 350 euros and if you apply it in the evening, everything’s a little better toned! And people actually believe it.
We often see women of different ages in your photos, and sometimes they are nude. Do your models need to be exhibitionists?
On the contrary. I find it far more interesting if they have to shed their inhibitions to shed their clothes. I remember doing my first nude portrait with the model Lynne Koester in the mid-1980s. I told her to take her time and let me know when she was ready. She had never had her photo taken in the nude and then she stood there in front of the camera for me, wearing not a stitch – there was an amazing power in that.
Lindbergh lives in Paris, is married for the second time and has four sons. As he sits down at the table in the Hotel de Rome in Berlin, the photographer Gene Glover takes his portrait. Lindbergh’s comment: “Now you are experiencing a great moment – how someone who is aware of being photographed attempts to find a way to occupy himself.” He focuses his gaze on the roof across the way. “Forgetting the camera is the model’s art.”
Women’s Stories, the documentary of your life, has just come to the movie theaters. In it, we see how you persuade Naomi Campbell, who cannot swim, to come into a pool with you for a shoot.
There was never any question of her not going in. You just have to talk with the models for long enough. My eldest son is a very direct kind of guy. He manages my studio. I often tell him that he may achieve his goal with his approach, but that it could make him unpopular with someone along the way. You only get loud because you think you won’t manage it otherwise. That’s not cool. If you spend three days talking about a thing, you can also achieve your goal without banging your first on the table on the first day – and you keep a lot of friends.
You’ve been a fashion photographer since the mid-1960s. How has the relationship between photographers and models changed in all the years?
Hardly, but the relationship with clients has changed. The Condé Nast publishing house now sends a code of practice along to photo shoots. “Don’t touch anyone!” They want my agent to sign it. I tell him he can sign it if he wants, but not on my behalf. It would immediately be a different kind of photography if I felt like an ordinary guy on the set and had to be standing 30 centimeters away from the models before I could ask them something.
You prefer to get up close?
I don’t take a step forward without consensus. I have the greatest respect for the women. I would never go so far as to stand even ten centimeters too close to a model to take photos on a job.
You once said that a good image was almost impossible without erotic tension. Is that why you have a problem with photographing men?
That’s a misunderstanding. I photograph many men, but I don’t show the pictures to keep all the men’s magazines from knocking at my door.
So it’s a matter of pure self-preservation?
Yes, it’s the only way to have a say in where you will later find yourself swimming around. Otherwise, someone will call me up someday, asking me to do family photos for orange juice ads.
Your colleague Juergen Teller once said that your freedom dies the second you take on a commercial job.
That’s nonsense. Especially in Juergen’s case; he doesn’t give a damn – that’s why he’s so amazing.
When Peter Lindbergh speaks, or rather, mumbles, you can still make out his Ruhr dialect: the surprised “boah” or the typcial “wat” at the end of a sentence. He was raised in Duisburg-Rheinhausen in the 1940s and ’50s, back when his name was still Brodbeck. His father worked as a sales rep for Lekkerland, a confectionary company, while his mother dreamed at her kitchen stove of a career as an opera singer. She died in the 1960s at a time when her son was making his way around the world – France, Spain, Morocco – as a pavement artist, a homeless vagabond, a collector of experiences. At that point, no one had any inkling of the career awaiting him because it wasn’t until years later, when he was 27 years old, that Peter Brodbek picked up a camera and chose his professional name.
Your mother never got to know about your artistic career. Would she have recognized photography as an art form?
She loved every form of artistic expression, although she wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about my first choice of occupation. I wanted to become a window dresser; I knew of no more artistic job in Duisburg. It was the only thing that was a bit crazy compared with the other available options of coal miner and supermarket cashier. When I told my mother, she was very concerned. Don’t do that. You should become a tile layer! Take a look outside, at the end of the street, those Schmitzkens. The father’s a tile layer and they’ve covered their entire house with white tiles – they’ve made it!
She didn’t want you to be creative?
Maybe she was worried. She wanted her boy to have a sound line of work so he wouldn’t end up going off the rails. I was a disaster at school; it just didn’t interest me. My youngest son, Joseph, is 16 today, and people are always moaning at him to work harder for school. But I know he has other things occupying his mind. He has a girlfriend at the moment and lots of pals; he’s just starting to live his own life and he isn’t interested in realizing any dreams his parents may have.
So as far as you’re concerned, there’s no need for him to take extra tuition?
Not at all. I tell him to not to worry. That’s what everyone used to tell me. He started taking photos, put together a little Instagram channel – crazy pictures, hardly any people in them.
And in color. He’s breaking away from his father.
I think so. Someone once remarked to him how hard it is being a photographer when you are Peter Lindbergh’s son. His replay: pfff… meaning, whatever.
A big Lindbergh exhibition will be opening at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf art museum in February 2020. The photographer is just reviewing material for the show at his studio in Paris. “Untold Stories” is the name he’s chosen for the show because when you rearrange the images, they tell a totally different story. “Lindbergh naked” – I’ll give the museum that one, he says, laughing.
Have Photoshop and Instagram dented the image of artistic photography?
Not at all. Now a new generation is rolling up, no big artists, more party photographers really, who hop around everywhere. Now the whole establishment is beginning to notice that they are taking away their jobs.
Yours, too, Mr. Lindbergh!
Sure. There’s this young girl who does pictures for Dior. I met her at a dinner once, basically a young student; the lightness in her pictures is just super. I recently laid out a bunch of new ad campaigns for fashion magazines on the floor, with stickers on them, saying who did them. I only knew two of the 50 names. It’s a style of photography that’s totally new. We don’t need masterpieces anymore.
No big-production photos that look like elaborate film sets.
People used to spent enormous amounts of money shooting advertising. There would be a budget of five million euros for a campaign, say, and then one-and-a-half million was spent on the photos. Young people do it for 500 000 today, and at the same time, everything gets filmed for a making-of documentary. It’s all very well organized up front. No one needs these expensive masterpieces anymore.
So that means your prices are coming down.
At last! That doesn’t bother me. It gives me the freedom to concentrate on other things. I don’t want to die like Richard Avedon, with my camera in my hand.