Peter Lindbergh, meditations on genuineness
Interview by Beda Achermann and Marc Zitzman (France, July 2019)
A farmhouse near Le Sambuc. At the foot of a tree, there’s a large wooden table. At lunchtime, it will be covered with homemade garlic clams, egg yolk omelet, salad, cheese and glasses of rosé. In the meantime, let’s listen to the wind rustling in the leaves, the insects teasing your auditory canal, the buttercup hens cackling, their rooster’s off-beat crowing and the donkey, Calichon, a teenager in need of release, braying at the top of his lungs.
It is amazing how much the sense of sound is solicited upon visiting this master of images. PETER LINDBERGH tells us about Arles and the Camargue region – the role they have played in his life, his career as a fashion photographer and his maturation as an artist in search of interiority.
>"Your photographs need to come from deep down inside, from who you are as a person."
BEDA ACHERMANN: YOU WILL BE TURNING 75 YEARS OLD IN NOVEMBER. ARE YOU STILL IN A LEARNING PHASE?
I just got back from a workshop I led in Venice. They wanted to call it a “masterclass” – what a stupid word! I learned more in a just few days than I have in the past fifteen years. There were a dozen interns there, all photographers. Everyone arrived with their portfolio in hand. I told them, “What’s the point of going through all this? What’s important is that you ask yourself why you’re taking pictures. Don’t just say: ‘The artistic director wanted me to do this, the stylist wanted me to do that.’ Stop apologizing all the time.
Deep down, you are all Leonardo da Vinci. But you have to make an effort to find your creative spark wherever it is hidden. If you don’t look for it, if you don’t feel it, if you don’t even know you have it, then what’s the point! Your photographs need to come from deep down inside, from who you are as a person. Otherwise, you can shift from one style or one aesthetic to another, but you will never be yourself, you’ll be a lemming forever. And at some point, you will get stuck, you will stop growing.”
BA: IT TOOK YOU A WHILE TO FIND YOUR PATH AS A YOUNG MAN.YOU OFTEN TELL THIS STORY: AT THE AGE OF FOURTEEN, IN 1958, IN YOUR HOMETOWN OF DUISBURG, IN GERMANY’S RUHR REGION, YOU STARTED AN APPRENTICESHIP.
As a window dresser at Karstadt, a major German brand. Shysters in tight pants, with their dentist’s vests that close in the back, their small collars and pockets for hammers and tape measurers – I’d never seen anyone so “artistic” before! But once I reached the top of the ladder of decorators – women’s clothing – I rebelled. I mixed blue and green in a window. It was a complete taboo. My colleagues were completely appalled, while I relished in revolutionary delight.
MARC ZITZMANN: THEN YOU TRANSITIONED FROM TRADE TO ART. YOU ATTENDED THE BERLIN ACADEMY OF FINE ARTS IN THE EARLY ‘60S. BUT THAT WAS ANOTHER DEAD END: YOU WERE BORED THERE.
I thought I would be immersing myself in the most advanced, avant-garde art, but they had me drawing from nature. I dropped everything and left to Arles! I followed in the footsteps of Van Gogh. I wanted to see the place that inspired all those crazy paintings. It was kind of a spiritual pilgrimage. I stayed in one of the three or four containers that served as youth hostels near the current police station, Boulevard des Lices. It cost 1,50 francs per night, so I didn’t last very long there with the 80 deutschmarks I had in my pocket. After a week, I started touring the farms.
At the first farm, a dog tore my pants off. I was more warmly welcomed in one of the next ones, despite my rags and traveler’s backpack. It was called Le Grand Fourchon; he was local and she was from Paris. They were of the new generation, modern in their own way. They offered me room and board in exchange for part-time work. Van Gogh painted and drew several views of the Langlois Bridge: in one of them, an oil painting, you can see a small house with a red roof on the right – that’s where I slept! One evening, I took a piece of wood from this bridge and sent it to my girlfriend at the time, who lived in Berlin. It was a false relic: I later learned that the structure had been blown up by the Germans in 1944 and completely rebuilt...
BA: DID YOU MAKE ANY FRIENDS THERE?
Not really. I spent my mornings working on the farm and my afternoons trying to understand how Van Gogh had become Van Gogh. I was making drawings; they were abstract, and not very good. I have no idea what happened to them. On Saturdays, I’d set up in front of the town hall and try to sell them; sometimes I would make up to 40 francs. The Place de la République hasn’t change at all since then; not a single stone has budged.
BA: AFTER THAT FIRST VISIT, YOU DIDN’T RETURN TO ARLES FOR TWENTY- EIGHT YEARS!
I left after eight months, in late 1962. I can’t remember why. I got all the way to Spain, mostly sleeping outdoors. It was a totally new experience. After that, I returned to Germany. My parents and my sister used all kinds of tricks to keep me in Düsseldorf for a while – given the state I arrived in, they must have thought that if I went to Berlin they’d lose me forever.
Then, I enrolled in the Werkkunstschule in Krefeld. I remember making a series of “monotypes”: large, wearable aluminum squares covered in car paint. I made some smaller ones, too – nothing groundbreaking. Douglas Huebler, Lawrence Weiner and especially Joseph Kosuth, with his 1965 work “One and Three Chairs” convinced me that I was on the wrong track. So, I got ~~into~~ photography. But I have to admit that even with photography it took me a long time to find my way. I copied other people a lot at the beginning. Little by little, however, I was developing. I didn’t find my own “style” – I don’t like that word – so much as make work that was in line with who I was. And then came the supermodels in the late 1980s, and international recognition –
>"There are only three beaches that matter to me. Deauville, where I was no later than mid-May for a shoot in homage to Karl Lagerfeld. Le Touquet, which is both beautiful, with its dunes, and ugly, with its high buildings on the waterfront. And Beauduc, which is magical!"
BA: AND THE RETURN TO ARLES!
In 1990, Arles was nothing but a distant memory, the recollection of a journey among many others. My friend Irene Silvagni, the editor- in-chief of “Vogue France” at the time, said to me: “Go to Beauduc, you’ll never come back.” And that’s what happened. I didn’t know Arles was near the sea! I discovered that long stretch of beach where, even on a Saturday in August, you only encounter three people. It’s in the middle of a nature preserve. You can’t just walk in; you need a pass.
There are only three beaches that matter to me. Deauville, where I was no later than mid-May for a shoot in homage to Karl Lagerfeld. Le Touquet, which is both beautiful, with its dunes, and ugly, with its high buildings on the waterfront. And Beauduc, which is magical. I did my first shoot there in 1990 with Helena Christensen, Anna Karina and Kristen McMenamy. And then I returned with Christy Turlington in 1993 and with Linda Evangelista in 1994. I also went inland with Lonneke Engel, Zoe Gaze, Audrey Marnay and Amber Valletta in 1998, with my son Simon and John H. in 2005, and with Carey Mulligan in 2010.
MZ: ON A DIFFERENT NOTE, YOU ALSO OPENED UP THE BEACH FOR A DAY DEDICATED TO SICK CHILDREN.
The association “Imagine for Margo” had asked me to photograph children with cancer in two Parisian hospitals. I found it depressing! So, instead, we decided to bring them to Le Sambuc with their families and caretakers. I asked them what else they wanted and seven or eight of the ten or twelve children replied: Mika! So, we contacted Sony – no one bothered to respond. They’re such assholes, these managers! My friend Farida Khelfa had Mika’s personal email address. I wrote him an email at 11 p.m. and the next day, at 8 a.m. on the dot, he called to accept the offer. I tip my hat to him: he played the game all the way till end and was extraordinarily kind ~~and~~ approachable. In the evening, we had a party with the Gypsy Kings.
MZ: THE SHORT INTRODUCTORY TEXT YOU WROTE FOR YOUR EXHIBITION ‘TOUT BEAUDUC 1990/2007’ PRESENTED AT THE FRÈRES-PRÊCHEURS CHURCH DURING THE 2008 RENCONTRES ENDS WITH A LIST OF ACKNOWLEDGMENTS AS LONG AS ONE’S ARM, FROM ‘JEAN-PAUL AND FRANÇOISE’ TO ‘HÉLÈNE AND [LATE] NÉNÉ.’ YOU KNOW A LOT OF PEOPLE HERE!
I love the people here andI think it is mutual. It’s not easy to win their friendship, but once you have it, it’s for life. I lived with Anne Igou, who was the owner of the Nord-Pinus hotel, for ten years. It’s there – in room number 10 – that Helmut Newton produced his most beautiful photographic series, in my opinion: Charlotte Rampling’s famous nudes. I know bar owners, bullfighters... Before, I had a house in Croissy-sur-Seine near Paris. The train station bistro was run by a certain Charlie. It turns out that he is the son of the owner of Le Tambourin, a bar on the corner of the Place du Forum. He became a matador. It’s a small world...
I know the mayor of Arles, Hervé Schiavetti, who invites me to the Easter Feria. I know Jean-René Charial from the gastronomic restaurant L’Oustau de Baumanière; his son is my son Benjamin’s best friend. I know Christian Lacroix, as well as the woman who runs his shop and her husband, who makes olive oil in the Alpilles... I even knew Lucien Clergue, from whom I bought a photograph, one of his female torsos, submerged in the waves. He was really moved by that. But maybe I’m name dropping too much here...?
MZ: TO MAKE MATTERS WORSE, YOU SHOULD MENTION THAT YOU KNOW A QUEEN OF ARLES PERSONALLY!
It’s true, I photographed Caroline Serre right after she was elected for a 2008 calendar! She was a little plump, very sweet, almost a child. We brought her to a field and used an orange filter on half of the camera lens. Everyone was shocked.
MZ: NOT AS SHOCKED AS THE REPRESENTATIVES OF THE MINISTRY OF CULTURE WERE IN 2001, WHEN YOU ASKED TO BE AWARDED THE KNIGHT BADGE OF THE ORDER OF ARTS AND LETTERS IN A TINY BULLFIGHTING BAR, CHEZ AUGUSTE, ON RUE DE LA LIBERTÉ.
All those high-level civil servants were pissed! “An important ceremony, in such a place...”
BA: YOU LIKE BULLFIGHTING.
I had the opportunity to attend the historic corrida of José Tomás, who fought six bulls alone at the Féria des Vendanges in Nîmes in 2012. It was perfection bordering on grace. Tomás didn’t make the slightest mistake. Men, Spaniards, were in tears. As I am friends with Simon Casas, the director of the arena, I was able to follow the fight closely from the barrera. I haven’t been back since.
BA: YOU FACED A SHITSTORM ON INSTAGRAM AFTER POSTING A PICTURE OF JOSÉ MARÍA MANZANARES, “THE MOST ELEGANT BULLFIGHTER...”
I responded to these violent, belligerent critiques as peacefully as possible. Things calmed down immediately. These bulls spend five years on the most beautiful pastures doing whatever they want. It’s true that after that, they are executed. But is their fate any worse than all the animals raised for their meat and leather and killed in slaughterhouses? Though I admit that there is nothing worse than a bad bullfight with a bad matador.
MZ: WOULD IT BE ACCURATE TO SAY YOU’VE TAKEN ROOT IN ARLES?
I think so! I acquired the house where we are in now in 2010. It was done through Maja Hoffmann. She had met the previous owners, the ~~biologists~~ Poppit and Patrick Rogers, during her long internship at the Tour du Valat. In addition, my son Jeremy lives in the Trinquetaille district. If you would be so nice as to put in a word that he is looking for a job...
MZ: YOUR OTHER THREE SONS LIVE IN PARIS, WHERE YOU OWN A LARGE APARTMENT WHICH ALSO HOUSES YOUR STUDIO. SO, ARE YOU PARISIAN OR ARLESIAN?
I feel more Arlesian when I am in Paris than the other way around. And a little anecdote: the apartment you are talking about belonged to the great designer and interior decorator Andrée Putman and her husband, Jacques. After their divorce, he married Catherine Béraud whom he had met... in Arles. And Andrée and Jacques’s son, Cyrille, owns a gallery (or two, rather)... in Arles as well!
BA: SPEAKING OF GALLERIES, YOU WENT FROM HANS MAYER, WITH WHOM YOU HAD WORKED SINCE 1969, TO LARRY GAGOSIAN IN 2014. HOW DID THAT HAPPEN AND WHY?
Mayer came to visit me with his new partner, Denise René, while I was still a student at the Werkkunstschule in Krefeld. He offered me an exhibition, which took place during a quiet summer month. I shared the space in their large, beautiful gallery with Jakob Bill, Max Bill’s son. My teachers were livid! I exhibited my “monotypes” there, under the pseudonym of Sultan. Mayer bought every- thing, I must have to earned around 20,000 marks. It was as if I had won the lottery. I immediately went to the bakery across the street
from school, where I had a running tab. Not only did I pay everything off, but I also bought the Mini Cooper they were looking to sell. After that, Mayer and I sort of lost track of each other.
And then one day, in 1990, he came to see me in Paris and said: “Let’s do an exhibition of your photographs.” At the time, I thought that museums and galleries were a bit old-fashioned. For me, the most relevant place to display photos was in magazines. But Hans finally convinced me. We did the show in his gallery in the port of Düsseldorf. There were so many people that the waiters had to hold their trays above their heads! Since then, he has been my official dealer. He even released my monotypes for a group exhibition titled “Fun Objects” at the Museum Tinguely in Basel in 2014.
BA: AND YET THAT’S THE YEAR YOU LEFT HIM FOR GAGOSIAN...
I had to force myself; I’m too loyal. Hans was not happy, but we remained friends. Gagosian is an offer I cannot refuse. He has this network of galleries around the world: New York, Rome, Hong Kong...
BA: YOU EXHIBITED FASHION PHOTOS AT GAGOSIAN PARIS IN 2014 AND AT GAGOSIAN ATHENS IN 2016. IN FACT, THAT’S WHY HE INITIALLY WANTED TO WORK WITH YOU: BECAUSE OF THE SUPERMODELS AND THE CELEBRITIES. BUT IN 2017, GAGOSIAN LONDON PRESENTED YOUR PHOTOS OF ALBERTO GIACOMETTI’S SCULPTURES TAKEN THE PREVIOUS YEAR AT KUNSTHAUS ZÜRICH – A NEW DIRECTION IN YOUR WORK.
I am not done with this artist yet, as I took more photos in the Giacometti Foundation’s ~~collection~~ storage in Paris in 2017. I’d like to have even more freedom with this project... It’s a work in progress!
MZ: ANOTHER ONE OF YOUR RECENT PROJECTS ALSO HAS THIS PARTICULAR STATUS OF PART-DOCUMENTARY, PART- ARTWORK – “TESTAMENT.” TELL US ABOUT IT.
I started filming people, their faces, to see how the exterior reflects the interior. First, it was people like you and me: it was interesting, but also very common- place. Then, I photographed people at the fringes of society in Los Angeles, but it was too voyeuristic – after just a few minutes they didn’t want to do it anymore. They’d say, “Are we done here?!”
Finally, I went to the Florida State Prison where I filmed four inmates on death row using a very specific protocol: they were placed in front of a camera behind a mirror, and they had to stand still and silent for half an hour. Then the light went out and they had four minutes to say whatever they wanted. Of the four inmates I met in March 2013, three were either adversarial, vain or playing up for the camera.
They weren’t genuine. But the fourth, Elmer Carroll, the rapist and murderer of a ten-year-old girl who was executed a few weeks after my visit, had had enough with life. It gave him a kind of inner peace. It’s very impressive: he looks at himself for a long time in the mirror, you look at him for a long time in the mirror, it’s almost torture on both sides – and suddenly you think you see a child, a priest, or a devil! And yet nothing has changed!
MZ: YOU GOT INTO AN ARGUMENT WITH YOUR LONG-TIME LAWYER BECAUSE OF THIS PROJECT...
He reproached me for making criminals famous. But, for me, there are no guilty people. There are only innocent people. Who knows what I would have become, what I would have done, if I had experienced what these death row inmates have experienced? In a way, I know my lawyer is right. But this is precisely the threshold that we must move beyond... It’s not a question of judging or explaining. It’s about looking. About being empathetic.
BA: FEW PEOPLE KNOW THAT YOU PRACTICE MEDITATION
And have been practicing for 45 years! I was introduced to it by Uli Bauhofer, a disciple of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi who brought Ayurveda to Europe, beginning in Munich. The goal is to get to know yourself better. You sit down, you take a blank sheet of paper, you write: "A woman in a long coat crosses the street with a suitcase, she’s an immigrant," something like that, or just a word, like "sad”, to express what you feel. From there, step-by-step, you try to get closer to this feeling. You learn to accept things as they are and to find them beautiful. You let them live and you let yourself live.
It’s thanks to this that I was able to make my well-known third Pirelli calendar, with all the famous actresses. They are always playing the game of representation, always playing a role, but I showed them without makeup, without composition, as they are. Meditation helps to create this kind of bond, to reach this kind of trust. I let things go, I don’t expect anything, I take things as they come. More and more, that’s how my shoots are done. We just shot commercials for Lancôme in London, Los Angeles, Madrid and New York. With Emmanuel Lubezki, my director of photography, we did what we call “fishing”: we let the girls move, without a story-board. They do as they please, we film them and then we edit. The result is magnificent.
MZ: YOU OFTEN COMPARE THE CAMARGUE REGION TO THE RUHR, WHERE YOU GREW UP.
These regions and their inhabitants are the real thing. Every- thing is reduced to its essence. I could never live in Saint-Tropez. Or Monte-Carlo. I’d rather pay 99 percent in taxes and live here in a trailer! Nothing is artificial or derivative in the Camargue region. And it is conducive to work: you’re always in the right place. Take this table under the tree, this barn with the. . . the things that were used to make wine back in the day. If you leave it untouched, if you don’t cut the branches down, if you don’t add little paths with gravel and small rosemary flowerbeds, the place starts talking, it starts talking to you. That’s what I told the interns in Venice...
BA: WHAT EXACTLY DID YOU TELL THEM?
I told them that in order to take real photographs you have to be moved by an inner necessity. Of course, you can adopt a style, be ~~successful,~~ be self-satisfied and drive a Porsche. But this won’t express your deep personality. You have to get to the core of the engine that drives you, and once you’re connected to it, you will derive energy from it for the rest of your life. In the 1960s, some people would poke a small hole through their skulls to decrease the amount of cerebrospinal fluid by a few millimeters. It’s as though they were constantly on LSD – a radical way to reach this goal. But I am convinced that a great artist’s creativity is dormant in each and every one of us.
BA: SPEAKING OF GREAT ARTISTS, WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO YOUR HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF PHOTOGRAPHS WHEN YOU ARE DEAD?
[Suddenly less talkative] They will go to a foundation in Paris. A foundation which, I hope, will be recognized as having some public use. I just created it. It was officiated in late May.