PETER LINDBERGH ON ALBERTO GIACOMETTI
Interview by Catherine Grenier, June 2017
Peter Lindbergh discusses photography and the history of his practice with Catherine Grenier, Director of Fondation Giacometti.
CATHERINE GRENIER: LET’S TALK FIRST ABOUT THE BIG AESTHETIC CHOICES IN YOUR CAREER. THE ONE THAT SEEMS THE MOST ENIGMATIC IN THE CONTEXT IN WHICH YOU BEGAN TO PHOTOGRAPH IS THE CHOICE OF BLACK-AND-WHITE.
Peter Lindbergh: The ideas that pushed me to choose black-and-white emerged very slowly. I used to be asked that question at every interview, and at first I would always answer, black-and-white is an interpretation of reality, and transforming reality is the first step toward creating art. The more I went on, though, the more I thought black- and-white represented a truth, a reality. But I wondered how that could be—there’s color in reality. That made me think, and I realized I’d grown up with all those American photographers like Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Carl Mydans, and quite a few others, who traveled for the Farm Security Administration across the United States to document the effects of the Great Depression. Their images were shot in black-and- white, and were linked to the idea of truth and reality. I think that’s what fascinated me unconsciously about black-and-white: you don’t try to make it pretty or chic or pleasing—it’s honest.
WHEN COLOR FILM FIRST BECAME AVAILABLE, SOME ARTISTS AND FILMMAKERS WOULDN’T USE IT BECAUSE THEY THOUGHT IT WAS VULGAR.
I wouldn’t go that far, because I do not have a precise idea what the term vulgar really represents. I must even admit that I’ve seen artists producing art that you could probably call vulgar, which I’ve found interesting. When I work with photographs and use color, I’m aware that I can change the colors later. But ~~at the~~ moment you take the photograph, looking through the lens can create frustration. That’s why I adjust the screen to black-and-white and the receptor to color. As a result, neither the green grass nor the blue sky will interfere with inspiration. If this is what the artists and filmmakers you mention define as vulgar, I agree with them.
WHEN ART BOOKS BEGAN TO BE MADE IN COLOR, ART HISTORIANS PREFERRED BLACK-AND- WHITE, BECAUSE THEY THOUGHT IT WAS TRUER TO THE VALUES OF THE PAINTINGS. COLOR IS INACCURATE, AND BLACK-AND-WHITE RENDERS VALUES MORE FAITHFULLY. BLACK-AND-WHITE AND COLOR DON’T REGISTER LIGHT’S NUANCES IN THE SAME WAY.
That’s true. I have problems taking portraits in color because color reacts differently to the light. With black-and-white, you get the feeling of transcending the skin, until, if you’re lucky, you might see a tiny bit of something, what could be the soul of that person, right in front of your camera. Color seems to stop the transcending process right at the skin’s surface. However strange this might sound to you, it is very real to me.
THE SECOND DECISIVE ELEMENT IN AN IMAGE IS THE FRAMING. THERE, TOO, YOU TAKE A PARTICULAR POSITION.
I never reframe a photograph—or, let’s say, practically never. All these answers are part of the same thing. Once you say the magic of a photograph should happen inside the camera, you can’t crop a picture anymore. In not cropping into your pictures, you move them closer to the truth, because you manipulate less. Ah, no, let me say it differently. Instead of “the truth” I think I would prefer to say “a truth,” because I am not sure that I know the difference, and, further, I am not sure that the truth even exists.
YOUR PHOTOGRAPHS INVOLVE TWO SORTS OF IMAGES: IMAGES THAT SEEM OBJECTIVE AND IMAGES THAT APPEAR STAGED, WITH SOPHISTICATED, HOLLYWOOD-LIKE SETTINGS. DID THE FIRST KIND OF IMAGE COME FIRST, FOLLOWED BY A MOVE TOWARD MORE COMPOSED THINGS, OR DID YOU HAVE THOSE TWO DIRECTIONS FROM THE START?
By saying “composed,” you’re using a Photoshop term. I don’t work with Photoshop, and I don’t compose images. I don’t use Photoshop, because the most wonderful moment, when shooting the big narrative scenes, or even simple pictures, happens when everything comes together at a given moment—when a complex image appears as from nowhere, right in front of your camera. Shooting is just like conducting an orchestra. All of a sudden, everything works. In 1989–90, I began trying to add narrative elements to my work, starting in the Mojave Desert with model Helena Christensen, who discovers on her way home a little Martian who crashed his UFO into the desert. She takes him to her trailer home, where he falls in love with her . . . and so on. Yes, we should have warned the poor little Martian. Roberta Smith wrote about this story a few years later in the New York Times. Evidently, it was the first narrative story in fashion photography.
Two years before, in 1988, when American Vogue started insisting I work for them, I had put together a group of five models, following a request from Alexander Liberman. He asked me what my vision was for the modern woman in the coming decade. I took the five or six models I was most fond of and we went to Santa Monica and photographed them in white shirts on the beach with practically no makeup. This was a kind of experiment, to try to define a new, different woman. Most important were the presence of independence and the decision to only focus on their extraordinary personalities, with no need to define them by their social backgrounds. It was, as it turned out later, their first appearance together. They were very different from the women used in the fashion magazines at this time. The supermodels took over! In the first few months of their existence, a lot of things began to change. Photography as photography had suddenly lost a part of its importance. Simple backgrounds like beaches, the desert, or even studios were now all that was necessary for photography.
The supermodels, representing a new, more modern woman, took ~~center~~ stage and all the attention. It was around 2000, after more than a decade, when the supermodels started to leave the scene, or at least left some space for other things to happen.
From 2000 on, I continued where I’d stopped in the ‘90s to use narratives to tell stories and produced quite a lot of series under the titles The Unknown and Invasion based on narratives showing invasions from other planets with Martians invading, using large productions, strong light effects, explosions, and so on. I’ve always been fascinated by the sky-watchers, strange and interesting people in the Mojave Desert, a few hours’ drive from Los Angeles, who spend their lives watching the sky, documenting everything abnormal, appearances of fast-moving lights or objects, taking place twenty-four hours a day over their heads.
UNLIKE MOST FASHION PHOTOGRAPHERS, YOU BEGAN EXHIBITING IN MUSEUMS EARLY ON.
When I was still in art school in Krefeld, the art dealers Denise René and Hans Mayer came to visit the school and asked me to have a solo exhibition in their gallery, which was quite spectacular, not to say surreal. I continued working as an artist after school, working with movable so-called monotypes, and was quite happy with myself. But then —I don’t remember exactly the year—the Americans, the concept artists Joseph Kosuth, Lawrence Weiner, and others appeared suddenly on the horizon and were so much more brilliant and inspiring than what I had seen until then. I tried to make changes in my work, but I started to feel more and more distance between what my work was becoming and what I felt, who I was, and I thought to myself: These Americans are so much better. Everything I’d learned about art was suddenly totally irrelevant. I was in Düsseldorf at this moment, contemplating how to continue as an artist, and hadn’t done anything for a while when, really by coincidence, Hans Lux, a Düsseldorf-based photographer, was looking for an assistant, and I said to myself, okay, you haven’t done anything in six months, go and do something. And I figured out in no time that photography would be the perfect art for me.
But to answer your question, about twenty years later, it was again Hans Mayer who proposed a solo exhibition in his exclusive art gallery in Düsseldorf. I was reluctant, as in my view, magazines like Vogue and others were the proper forum in which to show so-called fashion photographs. But when Hans insisted, I finally said yes to an exhibition, which turned out to be overwhelmingly successful, opening doors to other galleries and eventually leading to a long series of solo museum shows. One reason for my success might be that I didn’t exhibit fashion photography only: the content of the exhibitions was not at all focused solely on that aspect of my work in photography or fashion, but went much further.
BERND AND HILLA BECHER WERE AT WORK IN DÜSSELDORF IN THOSE YEARS.
I’d already left Düsseldorf before the Düsseldorf school came into being.
THE DÜSSELDORF AESTHETIC ASIDE, DID THE IDEA OF ART PHOTOGRAPHY INTEREST YOU?
I don’t think I’ve a clear idea what art photography really is. In the beginning, photography was used to document art, for artists like Michael Heizer, who ~~used~~ photography to document and show his monumental land art, often somewhere far away in the desert. This was the connection between photography and art in the early years. Photography was for documentation purposes. This is obviously now totally different, but I wouldn’t know where to draw the line and say, this is art and this is not. So-called “fashion” photography, especially, has come to be questioned as being art. I think it is not complicated to find out. At the same time, it is of no importance: to be labeled art doesn’t make a photograph better or worse. However, labeling, separating photography into different categories, doesn’t make much sense anymore: uninteresting photographs will end up in the trash and the interesting ones in museums or galleries.
DID YOU HAVE INFLUENCES OUTSIDE PHOTOGRAPHY? PAINTERS, SAY, OR FILMMAKERS?
Oh yes, a lot. There are movies that have influenced me fundamentally. Important for me was Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, shot in 1927, and also Josef von Sternberg’s Blue Angel of 1930, starring Marlene Dietrich. Andrei Tarkovsky was of great influence with films like Solaris, The Mirror, and Andrei Rublev. Wim Wenders was probably the most important influence for me, with movies like Wings of Desire, Alice in the Cities, Wrong Move, and Paris, Texas. Vincent van Gogh’s powerful paintings have never ceased to fascinate me, nor have works by painters such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Beckmann, and Otto Dix.
I GET THE FEELING THAT BEHIND THE BEAUTY IN YOUR WORK, THERE’S ALWAYS WORRY.
I don’t know if worry would be the term I would use. There is certainly quite often a feeling of melancholy, which I like, because in my understanding melancholy allows all kinds of emotions to appear and seems to have a close friendship with poetry! Contrary to common belief, it is impossible to make a representative photograph of someone. A human in all its complexity cannot be represented by a single image. This is absolutely naïve and misleading. You can photograph what appears in a magic space you have to create between sitter and photographer. No matter how intense or special the feelings that are composed in this space are, ultimately these are what reflect in the faces of the people you photograph. There you can influence the outcome of your pictures and inject your imagination. Everything comes from there, and there is unlimited space for every possible emotion, including worry.
DO YOU TAKE EVERYDAY PHOTOGRAPHS, FAMILY PHOTOGRAPHS?
Yes, I take often photographs with my iPhone of things that don’t matter at all, using it as a kind of sketchbook. That interests me because you might see a special light and can take a quick shot to understand how certain light may react in the camera. When you’re working, you’re very aware and pay attention to every detail. That stops you from doing easy and accidental or experimental things. With the iPhone you can’t usually do anything substantial, because of the reduced quality, so I use it in easy, mostly private moments, and that way you get spontaneous images, because you feel free and don’t think much about taking the picture. I don’t think before taking those pictures. I shoot them and check them out later. For over two years I kept all these images on my iPhone but then downloaded them all at once. It took over three hours. As it was loading, I could see all these images on the computer screen, and I was watching them totally fascinated—two and a half years of my life passing before my eyes. Walking the dunes in Namibia, then the next day in New York, then somewhere else. Those images are magical. I have over twenty thousand photos on my phone but can’t delete anything.
HOW DID THE PROJECT TO PHOTOGRAPH GIACOMETTI’S SCULPTURES COME ABOUT?
The magazine Blau, which is a supplement of Die Welt, told me they wanted a visual encounter between ~~Giacometti~~ and Lindbergh. That was fantastic; I was very excited, so my assistant Stefan, who is actually Swiss, and I went to Zurich. There was a table in the Kunsthaus Zürich’s conservation room, and we put a tarp on it and moved the sculptures over there. I thought my heart was going to explode; it was really a magnificent moment.
The day before we went to Zurich, someone, whom we haven’t managed to identify since, called the studio to specify what we could do and what not. According to those instructions, I couldn’t photograph either groups or fragments of sculptures, only uncropped and one by one. But when we arrived in Zurich the next day, I immediately started to put a big group of sculptures together and thankfully no one seemed to be opposed to it. It was exciting to see how the works communicated together.
WHY DID YOU COMBINE THE BRONZE AND THE PLASTER WORKS? TO CREATE CONTRAST?
I tried not to be guided by categories. When I discovered on-site the sculptures interacting with each other, I felt that mixing all different materials and periods would produce stronger emotions. Germans generally prefer to identify a system that has under all circumstances to be respected. But when I saw all those magic Giacomettis together, it was a jungle, like a jungle of Giacomettis, and I was moved by an extraordinary and strong feeling. Each sculpture represents a moment in his life, and I didn’t feel any need to put them in an artificial or biographical order. In a biography, an order might make sense, but here, the mix felt much more powerful. If someone were to ask me what the five most beautiful days of my life have been, that day with Giacometti in Zurich would be certainly in the top three.
THE WAY YOU SHOT, WHEN THERE ARE SEVERAL SCULPTURES YOUR EYE IS DRAWN TO ONE OF THEM, WHETHER BECAUSE IT’S MORE IN FOCUS OR THE OPPOSITE, PARTLY HIDDEN, WHICH MAKES IT INTRIGUING.
Light and shadows are in charge of creating mystery. You used the word intrigue, which I would translate as a mysterious, rather controversial form of beauty. To make this form of beauty appear you must find the way to connect to this energy inside of you, which uses your feelings, experiences, your point of view, your sensibility, and other mysterious ingredients. It guides you to make the right decisions: your creativity is deep inside of you, and the answer to your question comes from there. It is most important for every artist to find a way to access this energy, his very own reservoir of creativity in him, to finally find his own way.
DO YOU FEEL THAT THE PHOTOGRAPHS ARE MELANCHOLY?
Oh yes, absolutely. Again, for me, melancholy is one of the most attractive feelings. It is a compliment to call my photographs melancholic. It is as a feeling so rich and interesting. There is so much poetry; I would say that poetry and melancholy go very well together. People certainly have problems seeing the ~~difference~~ between sadness and melancholy. But this is not my problem. These images are melancholic, yes, but also joyful, and anyway, I am moved by what they tell me about Giacometti.
SO YOU FEEL AN AFFINITY WITH GIACOMETTI’S WORLD?
Totally. Before we started our exchange, I hadn’t realized to what extent I’ve always loved his work—how can you not? But after what I saw and the emotion I felt in Zurich, from the tiny sculptures toward the end of the war, to the amazing turn during the postwar years—it was an incredible experience to touch the sculptures, but also to listen to them communicating with each other. During this wonderful day last year at the Kunsthaus, the sculptures became alive, and I understood that they needed to feel loved, much like the beautiful and intriguing women I’ve photographed over all these years. Only then was I able to imagine how the sculptures must have felt loved, when Giacometti’s hands were, night after night, transforming them into the most beautiful sculptures ever seen.
NOW THAT YOU’VE BEEN WITH THESE WORKS UP CLOSE, HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE GIACOMETTI’S WORK, ITS ATMOSPHERE?
There is a very strong thread through his work as a whole. Everything he does is completely connected to him. To work, as Giacometti did, from your own center, deep inside of you, with no need to look to the right or left, with an uncompromising vision and totally independent from all other tendencies, is the greatest ability an artist can have. This powerful identification with himself is what I can feel very strongly and relate to. I see an artist who only talked to himself, who reinvented his work until he found his very own, unique answer.
© Peter Lindbergh. © 2017 Alberto Giacometti Estate/Licensed by VAGA and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.