The image maker
by Charlotte Cotton, Curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2008 (United Kingdom)
Peter Lindbergh’s career in fashion photography spans a remarkable 30 years. His first fashion story was published in 1978 in German magazine Stern and hinted at what would become his trademark — unretouched spontaneity in gorgeous black and white.
Lindbergh was born in eastern Germany in 1944 and grew up in the western German area of the Ruhr, against an aesthetic backdrop of heavy industry and ports, as well as the farmland that flanked the Rhine. ~~Buoyed by early success~~, Lindbergh moved to Paris and, by the late 1980s, was not just photographing supermodels, but also shaping the supermodel phenomenon itself. His 1996 book Ten Women frankly and intimately portrayed some of the most unfathomably exquisite women alive, including Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Tatjana Patitz, Christy Turlington, Stephanie Seymour, Kristen McMenamy and Linda Evangelista.
Lindbergh’s talent for constructing a strong photographic sense of the individual magnificence of the women was crucial in establishing their high demand and long careers in a notoriously short-term business.
>Over 100,000 copies of Ten Women have been sold to date.
As Lindbergh says, «Using black-and-white photography was really important to creating the supermodel. Every time I tried to shoot them in colour, because their beauty was close to perfection, it ended up looking like a bad cosmetics advert. With black and white, you can really see who they are. It toned down the commercial interpretation that colour gives. What’s so striking about black and white is how it really helps a sense of reality to come through.»
In late 1989, Liz Tilberis, then editor of ~~British Vogue~~, asked Lindbergh to create a fashion story that would preview the 1990s, visualising what was to come. Lindbergh’s black-and-white portrayal of the best-known supermodels became the enduring iconography of an era. The few fashion-photography greats whose careers span more than one decade tend to fall into one of two camps: some thrive on change, shifting styles and narrative threads with obvious regularity, while others possess a confident, consistent signature style that they apply to new collections and faces each season.
>"I change all the time !"
Many think of Peter Lindbergh as the latter, but when I ask him about his style, he exclaims, «I think I change all the time!» He gives me examples, such as a top glossy magazine that recently rejected an editorial story he’d shot in the south of France, where he and the stylist had been too consciously spontaneous, or how on a recent shoot with über-art director Fabien Baron, they restricted themselves to a basic crew and production set-up in order to achieve an authentic visual economy. He’s as genuinely excited about working with Baron on the revamped Interview magazine as he is about continuing his 25-year relationship with Italian Vogue or realising editor Glenda Bailey’s vision for Harper’s Bazaar. Lindbergh’s work for each title is carefully considered to respond to each unique context; what endures in his approach to photography is not so much a perpetual style, but a willingness to start afresh each time he picks up his camera.
>«The present is the moment when you make things happen; you are only yourself in the present», Lindbergh says.
Aside from his congenital desire to engage with the present, Lindbergh has also nourished himself by creating film projects. His 30-minute documentary Inner Voices (1999) explored the life of a Los Angeles acting teacher, while his 2001 documentary about German choreographer and performer Pina Bausch was made for Channel 4. His most recent film, Everywhere at Once, co-created with its director Holly Fisher, premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, The ostensible subject of the 70-minute, black-and-white film is legendary French actress Jeanne Moreau. Lindbergh was not only captivated by his subject, but also by how still photographs translate into moving images — there are animated sequences of still photographs throughout the film. He experimented with the ways in which photography can be filmed, or made filmic, as well as how to look afresh at one of the most photographed figures of cinema. «I can’t really say if it’s a documentary or a sequence of pictures,» he muses. «It’s an unprecedented mixture of things.»
>Lindbergh is eloquent and opinionated about the way in which the medium of black-and-white photography has developed since the start of his career.
He points to the profound shift in recent years to digital photography: all digital capture is colour, so that monochrome is now a more active choice and one made later in the creative process. Lindbergh is excited by the possibilities of the fashion-photography industry’s move from analogue to digital , but he is critical of some of its consequences. «My battle at the moment is that I don’t want my photographs retouched beyond my intent,» he explains. «I think of myself as making propaganda for the women I admire, and to have what I see as unique and interesting in the women I photograph retouched to death does concern me. You see this so often, especially in advertising, and I think that’s why my David Yurman adverts seem striking — because of the lack of retouching and the sense that they go back to the woman portrayed.»
>The key to Lindbergh’s most successful photographs, and the equilibrium of his entire professional life, is clearly linked to an avoidance of over-rehearsing or ruthless stage-managing during a shoot.
«I think I plan an idea for a shoot so that I can sleep the night before!» he says. «When you are on a shoot, you realise within an hour that it won’t happen the way you planned. The important thing is to stop trying to realise something that does not follow the moment.» I ask whether this is the hardest part of being a great fashion photographer, especially in a climate that currently privileges post-production over the happenstance of the photographic moment. «I don’t think there is anything hard about it,» he answers. «It’s not that it’s easy, but making photographs is a beautiful process that involves being open to things and finding a way to translate your impressions into your own thing. It’s a lot of work but it’s more exciting than difficult.»
Charlotte Cotton is a curator and head of the photography department at LACMA. She is the author of books including Imperfect Beauty, Guy Bourdin and The Photograph as Contemporary Art.