Photos from a bastardized viewpoint
by Heinz-Norbert Jocks, 2005 (Germany)
HEINZ-NORBERT JOCKS: I GATHER THAT BEFORE STARTING OUT AS A PHOTOGRAPHER YOU WANTED TO BE A PAINTER AND ENROLLED AT ART COLLEGE IN KREFELD.
Peter Lindbergh: That’s right, but I didn’t really have a clear idea of what I wanted to do. A little while ago, when clearing out the cellar in my old house I came across a few refuse bags and crates in which I’d stored pictures from back then. My memory of the pictures had faded somewhat. The last thing I had tried out was psycho-tests in and as exhibitions. And there in the cellar were the materials for them, with all manner of drawings and jottings. Quite interesting stuff really, as I had at the tender age of 24 carried out the 20 tests myself. Along with them I found a somewhat dumb, but painfully exact expert report. The final hope I had associated with art back then was to move my own aesthetic ideas forward. And I wanted to benefit from this personally, too. Which is why I resolved to conduct the psycho-tests. Then along came my brother, who is a psychoanalyst, and explained to me that the tests are used by companies to establish personality profiles that they then use to optimize their use of human resources. And that depressed me so much I immediately abandoned the project.
WHAT WAS IT THAT SO FASCINATED YOU ABOUT ART? WHAT TRIGGERED YOUR INTEREST AND MOTIVATED YOU? WHAT WERE YOUR INTENTIONS?
You want to know why a person becomes an artist? I have to pass there, as I don’t know whether you are born with the compulsion to express something or not.
WAS THERE NO ART IN THE FAMILY THAT MAY HAVE KINDLED YOUR INTEREST?
Not really. It is not as if my family was opposed to art. Art simply did not exist. Although my mother had a few dreams as regards culture. She sewed her own clothes because we had not money, and in a Duisburg home back then that was pretty much a creative act, if not an artistic undertaking in its own right. And she didn’t stop there. She also had hopes of a different future for my brother and I. Possibly we kids absorbed our parents dreams as a pattern that we then endeavored to make come real. Be that as it may, there was not much other culture at home. Just as some people scrimp and save, and then buy a season ticket for the theater, although they aren’t really interested in theater, so my father was the proud owner of a subscription to a book club. After the books arrived, he never read them but simply put them on the slightly sagging wooden shelf, which was mounted on the wall with two cheap metal brackets. At some point, my sister came home with a really interesting guy. He was an architect and musician, and he truly inspired me. For example, he once punched the wall and then said: « You see. Pain is only in the mind. » But I was very fixated on playing hand ball and for a long time simply did not notice there was any world outside of it.
HOW DID YOU FIRST COME INTO CONTACT WITH PAINTING?
Now that I do know. Quite precisely in fact. A key item in my parent’s home was an encyclopedia, and I used to thumb through it hungry for pictures. There was one of an African woman, with a baby on her hip and with heavy sagging breasts. And there was Franz Marc’s «Blauer Reiter» and a few paintings by Gauguin. Now and again I sat at the kitchen table copying such things in crayon. But the real interest in art first arose thanks to the man I just mentioned, who was later to become my brother-in-law.
DO YOU THINK THERE ARE LINKS BETWEEN PAINTING AND PHOTOGRAPHY?
No, not really.
HOW DID YOU GET INTO PHOTOGRAPHY?
I always had a few photos hanging from the wall, and was somehow interested in them. When I leafed through magazines looking for pictures to copy it was not with some in-depth interest. That changed when my brother had kids and I wanted to photograph them. I bought a small second-hand camera for the purpose, and then read Feininger’s book with its highly complicated discussions of photography and exposure times.
WHAT MADE YOU WANT TO PHOTOGRAPH YOUR BROTHER’S CHILDREN?
Small kids are just great – they are so open and so devoted. They have not yet erected a wall around themselves nor do they have an image of how they want to be seen by the outside world. They have no mask or allures. And in light of my experience with them I believe that you can show the person behind the image of what he or she wishes to represent. Later, when I was an assistant to Hans Lux, I soon noticed that adults have lost the ability to be open when confronted by a camera. They spare no effort to put up a pretense, for both the photographer and themselves. Now tearing down those walls is the real challenge in taking portrait photos.
DID YOU DEVISE SPECIAL STRATEGIES TO GENERATE MORE NATURALNESS IN THE PEOPLE YOU PORTRAYED?
Neither techniques nor strategies help you there. There is no sure-fire solution. All you can do is be honest with your feelings and stop putting up a pretense for the other person. That’s the only way I can work. If I meet people who have donned a mask in which they wish to be seen, then it is really important how I as the photographer respond. The minute I simply act completely normally, they soon start to reveal what they actually are. It’s not just an exciting, but also a relaxing process enabling the persons portrayed to perhaps discover something about themselves they did not consciously know before. I want to get closer to what really is them.
DO YOU BENEFIT FROM THE DIALOGUE WITH THE PERSON IN FRONT OF THE CAMERA?
Sure, it’s a learning curve for me, too, and gives me a feeling of success. In quite a few cases I have worked with the same people for years and an atmosphere of mutual trust has gradually arisen. Making things relatively simple. It is harder if you go to someone you haven’t ever met before. That’s how it was, for example, when I made some portrait shots of Jeanne Moreau, whom I knew from her films. For her of course it was just a normal photo session. Incidentally, it’s a bad American habit to act on such occasions as if you already knew everything about the person who just walked into the studio. In America, it is customary to give the person on the other side of the camera the feeling that you love his or her work. And needless to say afterwards it transpires that none of this was true. In the final instance, you do not even really know his or her name. That’s simply the rhetoric of politeness so widely spread in such circles. What was great about the session with Jeanne Moreau was that she really did know some of my photos or series. In the short time we spent with each other we got to know each other so well that by the end it was almost as if we were friends. As a rule, such a session is a one-off, there’s rarely a second shoot. In other words, you have to establish a climate of familiarity in the space of the maximum two hours in which everything happens. In retrospect I am still amazed at just how profound the photo of Jeanne Moreau I made is.
WHAT WAS THE MEETING LIKE, THEN?
She had such good intentions that we swiftly reached that key point of mutual acceptance. If you feel you are so accepted you emerge from that inner protective shell, and simply look unlike you would if you are uncertain and do not really know what the other person thinks of you. On my photo of Jeanne Moreau you can see that she had traveled to a place where she seems more fragile and yet more refined. She’s not hiding anything. And because she let go, you can read everything you know about her from her face.
DO YOU PREPARE YOURSELF FOR SUCH SESSIONS BY GETTING IN THE RIGHT MOOD OR, AS IN THE CASE OF JEANNE MOREAU, BY GOING BACK AND WATCHING SOME OF HER FILMS AGAIN?
No I don’t, I respond to the moment. That’s more effective than trying beforehand to find out all there is to know about a person, which makes meeting them quite superfluous. What is great about the time you then spend with the person is the opportunity to create something directly when face to face. With Jeanne Moreau you can hardly eliminate the image you have of her from your mind. But for the finished photograph nothing has been retouched. I told my agent: don’t let them manipulate the photo in any way. Many magazines are shameless in that regard and have no feeling or sense, confusing beauty with an unblemished face. Thankfully in this particular case I was wrong, however. Because the editors rang me up and asked whether they could print the photo with no retouching. It represents the synthesis of how I see Madame Moreau.
WHEN YOU MEET SOMEONE, DO YOU THEN WANT TO IMMERSE YOURSELF COMPLETELY IN HIM OR HER IN ORDER TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT THEM?
Yes, I would be flattered if when you see my portrait photos you get the impression that they differ from the work of other photographers and they enable you to see right through the person portrayed. The reason why faces are so fascinating has to do with the fact that the more you sense the person behind the face, the more you learn not to pass harsh judgment on them.
WHAT FOR YOU IS A COHERENT PHOTO? A CONDENSATION OF THE MANY DIFFERENT SIDES TO A PERSON, PERHAPS?
If you photograph someone it’s like stating your opinion on them. The photo is the link binding together what you know, what you see, and what you feel. That is not only the essence of a good portrait, but also of a good fashion shot.
HAS THERE EVER BEEN AN INSTANCE WHEN YOUR IMAGE OF SOMEONE DISSOLVED COMPLETELY ONCE YOU ACTUALLY MET THEM IN PERSON?
That’s a tough question, because I never think beforehand about what the person is really like. Such as the very famous American actor I once photographed. I only knew his image from the movies, someone who despite a certain lack of ingenuity has a good nose for roles in films that will be blockbusters. Well, that was somewhere in the back of my mind. But the moment he was standing in the flesh in front of my camera the image vanished. At the end of the day, I then revised my opinion once more, because the reputation that preceded him had been the right one, after all. Anyone going about their work with a fixed image in mind will have difficulty shedding it.
FOR YOU AS A PHOTOGRAPHER, WHAT ROLE DOES SEEING BUILDINGS, OBJECTS OR PEOPLE PLAY?
It’s like nourishment. It triggers incredible emotions. A few months ago I was driving through the Ruhr region, which is a highly emotional experience for me. I suddenly found myself seeing all those shapes that I had known as a child. Everything was suddenly before me again, as a reality, admittedly a little dressed up with frills. If I walk through an industrial complex at night, and it’s all lit up, that kindles very strong feelings in me.
WAS IT THAT YOU LEARNT TO SEE THROUGH PHOTOGRAPHY?
Back in the days when I hitchhiked, stood waiting at the side of a road, and the sun went down, the light and the angles surrounding me fully filled my mind. In practical terms, in the course of time you have gradually perfected your way of thinking and working. Thus, today I see everything through the eyes of someone who asks how to best do what why when and how. A practical approach to translating an innocent vision into a photo tends to be a hindrance.
DO YOU MEAN THAT YOU CONSTANTLY SEE THE PLACES YOU DISCOVER AS LOCATIONS?
Very much so. Seeing often goes hand in glove with this practical aspect of how to use things. As if there were no other reason for being somewhere other than to imagine what could be photographed there. It’s a pity, really!
~~DO YOU FIND~~ IT MORE EXCITING TO HOLD AN EXHIBITION IN OBERHAUSEN THAN IN PARIS?
There’s something warm, something personal about the former. There’s the bond to the Ruhr region where I was a kid, and it’s still in my bones. It’s not something that you simply cannot discard like a coat. Even today, I still choose the shabbiest locations for my photographs, probably because they remind me of the Ruhr region. Even though Duisburg is so ugly, it evokes in me a sense of being protected and a certain version of beauty, neither of which I can really understand. I mentioned this to friends once while we were driving through the region and my words met with an embarrassed silence. Finding something beautiful has to do with certain visual structures, with origins and your own roots. These are experiences that someone on the outside can hardly appreciate. All the others see, no doubt, is unadulterated ugliness – and yet for me the streets in the Ruhr region always and forever tempt me to photograph them. The energy I sense in those dilapidated factory halls or other poetic venues that are past their zenith is what inspires me to create photo stories; that said I try to restrain myself today as I have never done it all too often.
ARE YOU INSPIRED BY LESS BEAUTIFUL PLACES MORE THAN BY THOSE THAT ARE IMPRESSIVE PER SE?
Anyone who comes from Duisburg will appreciate different parts of the Nevada desert than those favored by someone who grew up on the shores of the Alster lake in Hamburg. What locations you like depends, as I said, strongly on the visual experiences of your childhood.
YET YOU DEPLOY LIGHTING TO AESTHETICIZE THE «UGLY» LOCATIONS, GIVING THEM A NEW AURA.
But I personally find them beautiful. I am someone who often finds the things in the wings more interesting than those out on center stage.
SO WHY DO YOU LIVE IN PARIS?
Even if Germany is definitely changing ion this respect, it is still completely decentralized. Anyone wanting to turn out high-quality work together with like-minded people must be able to rely on a centralized city, because that’s where you always find the best. At some point I realized that if you need good people, then you’ve got to head for Paris, which is what I immediately did, and I did it so often that it hardly became worth while driving back. So it was only natural that at some point I decided to live in Paris.
WAS PARIS THEN UNLIKE PARIS NOW?
When I arrived in Paris, I was so excited and entranced by its beauty that I just couldn’t stop taking photos. But today I even find it difficult to photograph what is typically Parisian, even if I attempted to do just that for « Harper’s Bazaar » not that long ago. The results were not really uplifting. Paris as the backdrop the way you know it, that includes Place de la Concorde, Café de Flore and all the gardens. For me, all of these venues are now clichés that have lost their appeal. I would find it interesting, if at all, to photograph a few of the Paris suburbs or arrondissements where life is tougher. In all the years that I’ve been in New York its appeal hasn’t ever worn thin. Perhaps because it is uncontrollable, parts of it more run down, and in a certain way reminds me more of Duisburg.
DO YOU FEEL MORE AT HOME IN FRANCE THAN IN THE RUHR REGION?
Yes, as I’ve now lived here in Paris for 25 years. But it’s a pretty close thing. The original visual feeling of home is of course stronger than the visual feeling for Paris that I have acquired down through that quarter of a century.
WHAT ROLE DOES THE PRESENCE OF FRENCH CULTURE PLAY IN YOUR WORK?
France has also only become one pole in my understanding of culture, as I have been constantly on the road. If all you do is take photographs, then you are never 100 percent in one place. If you work all the time you don’t have time to concern yourself with whatever else is going on in culture in the same way that those people do who concentrate on culture. Put differently, I most probably have no sense of French culture as I simply do not have time to take much of it on board. What I have is a bastardized form of culture made up of fragments from all sorts of cultures. Last but not least, it is this mixture that gives rise to a typical Lindbergh photo.
WHEN DID YOU DEVELOP THE STYLE THAT HAS BECOME YOUR TRADEMARK?
That was after five years in Düsseldorf, with the «Stern» story and shortly before I moved to Paris. When « Stern » saw my first editorial story, which I had produced for Willy Fleckhaus, I was commissioned by the editorial desk in Hamburg to create a 14-page story on the new Paris collection. It was a project where I was not subject to much outside influence, worked with countless spotlights and shadows everywhere, and it just so happened that way, and is more or less innocent, without directly referencing anything. No idea whether the story was good. At any rate, it made a huge splash, because with the speckled background it looked quite unlike anything else at the time. In fact, it was a mistake by a Düsseldorf stage-set painter that I have to thank for my success; I had given him an Irving Penn photo with a grey background with a few clouds to use for the backdrop. He interpreted it wrongly, and produced something quite different. Thanks to this Pointillist error, the « Stern » series was extraordinarily original.
IF I LOOK AT YOUR OEUVRE, YOU HAVE AT LEAST TWO WAYS OF TAKING PHOTOGRAPHS. EITHER PORTRAITS THAT FOCUS STRONGLY ON ONE PERSON OR THEATRICAL STAGINGS. WHAT IS THE LINK TO THEATER?
I was never highly cultured. But when I did see something, it always affected me deeply. Examples would be Pina Bausch and the Sankai Yuku group established by Ushio Amagatsu, the Japanese dance director. Both are avant-garde. I first got to know Pina Bausch over 20 years ago, through Raimund Hoghe, her artistic director at the time. I was so overwhelmed by her very early piece called «Blaubart» that it became a key experience which inspired me immensely. I’m absolutely certain my love of chairs in my photos dates back to her piece « Café Müller ». To my mind, specifically well-used chairs are an expression of something very personal.
DIDN’T YOU PRODUCE SOME SORT OF HOMAGE TO PINA BAUSCH?
A story for the Italian edition of «Vogue». We hung a whole series of photos from the dance theater on a studio wall and then tried to transpose what we felt on seeing them into action before the camera.
WHY WERE YOU SO IMPRESSED BY THE JAPANESE DANCE GROUP?
What you see on stage is so indescribably alien. In one of the better known pieces, the dancers, their heads shaved, wear white skirts made of stiff fabric. At that time Amagatsu danced with a faun, and the dancers hung head down from ropes for so long that you thought the tops of their heads would blow off.
WHAT FILMS OR MOVIE DIRECTORS INSPIRED YOU?
The film « Metropolis » was an incredible visual event for someone who had grown up in Duisburg, to the extent that what I was familiar with from normal life, namely factories, shift changes, workers etc. was all transformed into a visual masterpiece on the screen.
NARRATIVE’S IMPORTANT IN YOUR PHOTOGRAPHY, ISN’T IT?
I don’t know whether that stems from film or was simply a stopgap. For the last 20 years I have mainly worked for the Italian edition of «Vogue», which favors incredibly long photo-stories. In fact, I’ve had to provide material for as many as 48 pages at once. And the norm there is about 30 pages. So the question arises: Is such a picture story even possible without narration. Telling a very simple story is itself enough as it is and helps to the extent that it gives you a guideline along which to work. If you don’t have a story to move along then all you can do is ask the model to pose first this way, then that. In the long run that is pretty boring. And not only for me, but for all the others involved, the idea of telling a story is far more interesting. We once opted for a fast-told story in Los Angeles. In order to become famous Rita S., completely misguided, heads for Hollywood and leaves her child with her brother and sister-in-law. She promises to come back every second weekend, but actually only returns home once every three months to see her daughter. This simple idea formed the basis for an interesting visual story which we then shot in the desert at one of those «diner-motel-gas stations» outside Los Angeles.
HOW DO YOU COME UP WITH SUCH IDEAS?
All the impressions I have keep going round and round in my head as if they were on fast forward while seeking images and stories.
ARE YOU INTERESTED IN THE STORIES OF THE PEOPLE YOU MEET AND DO YOU THEN DEVELOP FICTITIOUS STORIES ON THE BASIS OF THEM?
That happens now and then. It’s hard to distinguish between fiction and reality. What a highly successful model told me not so long ago will one day perhaps turn into a story. She spent her youth in a house with a dad who yelled, with her mother and her brothers, all chain-smokers, with the windows closed – in two suffocating trailers. Now you’re bound to be able to make something exciting out of that sort of a real story.
DO YOU TRAVEL AROUND SCOUTING FOR LOCATIONS THAT ARE SUITABLE AS BACKDROPS FOR PHOTO SESSIONS?
I don’t travel around specially to scout locations, such as Wim Wenders did for his film «Paris Texas». I come across locations by chance. It sometimes happens that people with whom I work or special location agencies draw my attention to venues because they know I’ll like them.
THE WINTER BEFORE LAST YOU WERE IN INDIA AGAIN ON HOLIDAY. WHY HAVE YOU NEVER DONE FASHION SHOOTS THERE?
Because India interests me for other reasons. Incidentally ten hours from Goa, in Hampi, there’s a lunar landscape I once came across by chance when I was out on a motorbike – full of huge black rocks. With the exception of the small, dilapidated but rather than beautiful temples dotted here and there it has nothing to do with India. The temples are surrounded by pylons, with cables hanging loose from them.
I IMAGINE YOU CHOSE YOUR PROFESSION BECAUSE IT ALLOWED YOU TO TRAVEL.
It’s probably fair to say that you take up such a profession for reasons that never become apparent. There are static situations in the life of many people whose only problem is making sure they get to lunch on time. Such details can be a huge problem for people who need to know in advance what they will be doing when. Such intransigence only arises in places where actually very little happens. When I’m on a job I always have the feeling of being pushed around. Others praise me for having everything under control. But for my part I simply start out and things then happen that I cannot really influence, and I try as far as possible to accept them the way they are. That’s what I call flexibility. I don’t want to have the reins in my hand all the time. Even in the case of large sets it’s important to have a lot of free scope, as this let’s you give brilliant coincidence a real chance.
DO YOU LIVE FULLY IN THE PRESENT?
You bet. That was one of the things I found out in my psycho-test when I was 23. My wife said back then: « You see. You really don’t care what has happened or will happen tomorrow. You’re only interested in the present! » And I replied: «And is that so bad?» «Yes,» she said, «sometimes you have to think of tomorrow.» Sure, I sometimes think of the future as regards projects or wishes I want to realize at some point. The more I absorb the surroundings where I take a shot, the more likely that the result will be something unexpected. But complete chaos is by no means a sufficient basis for success. Not that precise specifications for everything in advance helps much either. As they all too frequently spell results bereft of feeling. Even in the midst of true chaos there must be a slot for the essentials, namely the person on whom the story hinges. That’s what I have learned in overcoming chaos. If I have someone like you now sitting opposite me then I know exactly how I’d photograph you. There are situations where I planned everything perfectly in advance, and then sensed while we were preparing the set that it was all for nothing. It is more fruitful to only start with a rough sketch.
Of course, if you want to shoot cars, they have to actually be on hand when you need them. But what you then do with them in the shot, now that you have to leave open. Which means that the guys who arrive at 8 a.m. and want to know where the car is to be positioned exactly are going to end up tearing their hair out. I first tell them to wait. An hour later, and they’re back wanting to know what’s going to happen with the cars. And I don’t want to tell the people in front of the camera directly what they should do, either. Only gradually does everything fall into place. That way you can include what happens on the spur of a moment instead of reconstructing situations you thought through weeks before. Now you need quite a lot of experience and a very sure hand to improvise without being fearful. After all, suddenly night falls and nothing has happened, and all you’ve got is one big, hyper-expensive chaos. What I mean is that you have to give that coincidental moment a chance.
WHAT’S POSSIBLE IN FASHION PHOTOGRAPHY THAT IS NOT POSSIBLE ELSEWHERE?
Simple: greater freedom. If I do advertising for a particular brand then I’ve got to consider the fact, because there’s a product behind it all. I’m completely free to do as I like for editorial stories like those I do for «Vogue» in Italy. If I mention an idea I’ve had to the editor-in-chief of the Italian edition of «Vogue», Franca Sozzani, she usually immediately takes it up. I can then realize it the way I want and don’t need to ask someone whether it’s to be landscape or portrait formats, color or black-&-white. And when it’s ready, I put together the 30 pages at the photocopier and that’s exactly the way she’ll print it. Pure luxury!
DO YOU MAKE A DISTINCTION BETWEEN WORK THAT IS COMMISSIONED AND YOUR OWN WORK?
No, there isn’t one really. Many of the contract jobs I do are pretty close to the work I would do on my own in terms of the freedom I have. Ad photography is always embedded in the concept for the respective campaign, so it is always more commercial. But in the process you can realize your own ideas there, too.
AS A PHOTOGRAPHER, DO YOU OCCASIONALLY RESPOND TO WHAT’S ON THE NEWS?
In my case, essentially everything is fictitious, because then you don’t get bogged down in logic or responsibility.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN YOUR FASHION WORK AND THAT OF OTHER PHOTOGRAPHERS?
A few years ago I resolved to withdraw as far as possible from the fashion world, as I was really irritated by the fact that the work produced among the photographers who went to all the fashion shows was pretty much all of the same. They all follow the same stimuli. My dream, and I would like to get a little closer to realizing it, is to be a fashion photographer who is independent of what happens in the world of fashion. That’s the way I made my own calendar. I know how great it is to be witness to a John Galliano show for Dior. The Dior couture he has most recently made, drawing on inspiration from China, is so incredible that you could showcase every single item in a museum. This is the strongest fashion vision I have ever seen – well, since «Comme des Garcons» 20 years ago, that is. I look at photos from the shows, but I rarely attend them. Once you turn your back on the fashion-world diary, you at long last find time for your own visions. And producing something of your own, an independent vision, can lead to images that inspire the designers. A few years ago, stylist Babette Djian had the idea of asking a few designers to dream up fashion inspired by Egypt for a series in her magazine. We then photographed the creations, and sure enough it set a trend in the very next season.
HOW DO YOU SEE FASHION AS A PHENOMENON?
I am rather critical as regards fashion as an instrument for defining identity. And it sounds a bit of a cliché to say that fashion is a great means of self-fulfillment. I remember a situation years ago. My brother introduce me back then to the famed psychoanalyst Mrs. Meistermann, the wife of the equally well-known Cologne painter. When she asked what I did, I had to blush. But she did not respond to my hesitant reply that I was a fashion photographer the way I had expected. She thought it was great because in her opinion the world would be in a great dilemma if there were no fashion. For many people, she said, fashion was the only form of self-fulfillment and self-representation, of finding an identity. In this context, I would criticize the fact that you can buy an identity without doing anything for it. To the extent that you can see through such identities, fashion merely holds up a mirror to those who wear it. It is particularly people who have a ~~problem with growing~~ old who often dress as if they were running amok against time.
DO YOU ASPIRE TO CREATE PHOTOGRAPHS FOR ETERNITY?
It tends to be coincidental if one of my photos has an impact for more than one day. I believe that it is important not to chase down current trends, but, as stated, to follow your own convictions and visions and express them, for example your image of women. As a consequence, photos taken 15 years ago often look as though they were shot last week. But I do not consciously forego particular style elements simply to create a timeless feel.
TODAY EVERYONE THINKS THEY CAN UNDERSTAND A PHOTO. BUT YOU HAVE TO LEARN TO READ A PHOTOGRAPH. DO YOU SEE PHOTOGRAPHS DIFFERENTLY THAN DOES A LAYPERSON?
A photographer always sees why someone does something this way and not that. He can grasp what has happened and recognize the problems the photographer had with the photo. He sees whether the way it has been taken is logical or not. In the final instance, the photographer is responsible for how the person he photos comes across or succeeds. It’s his photo, after all.
WHAT EXPERIENCES REALLY MOVED YOUR WORK FORWARDS?
It’s like talking now. Things become clear to me that I would not notice if we were not talking about them now. A special light is not enough in itself. Only if a person’s soul appears in the photo do I as the photographer feel I have achieved what I wanted. As stated, another experience that really helped me was when I realized how important it is to concentrate on the moment of the making. And trying out formal things also helps you avoid being all too conventional. At some point I made a story for «Harper’s Bazaar» – it was with Linda Evangelista on a street in Brooklyn. In order to give the walking-in-the-street pictures a little more excitement, I cropped them such that they looked very graphic, very unusual. For another story, I did not even look through the camera, meaning that I was as surprised as everyone else by what was to be seen on the photos. That was the way I did black-&-white photos on the streets of New York for «Vogue L’Uomo» in Italy, using a small autofocus camera. That approach completely eliminates all you ever learned about composition. And throwing all the compositional rules overboard ensures everything is slightly less conventional. Since the miniature camera meant that the persons photographed felt less observed the product were interesting images as regards the way they captured the models’ personalities.
WHEN DO YOU THINK A PICTURE IS GOOD?
If viewing the picture triggers emotions, of whatever kind, and perhaps touches something in you that you find important. All of us have any number of formal ideas that have to first be overcome for the photos not to be like the run of the mill that has gone before. The goal: specific contents coupled with a composition that you like but that is also revolutionary.
ARE THERE WAYS OF TRICKING YOURSELF IN THIS RESPECT?
One technique is to cast off what you have learned and the validity of what you have experienced. I used a different technique for the photos I took in the south of India. It was in winter, and I was suddenly filled with the urge to work, and I had the idea of a book of reportage photos. In the process I stopped looking through the viewfinder and simply held the camera out in my hand in some direction or other, without exercising any control over the outcome. In the space of three or four years I had shot countless rolls of film. The images were exceptionally interesting, but in a way quite unlike what I praised above. The book will be based on a different form of memory. Normally if you consciously compose photos where you happen to be at a particular moment and then later see them, it’s like a déjà-vu.
For the person who pressed the shutter release, there’s nothing surprising about them. By contrast, in the India series memory does not rest on what you have seen. You can only make out and recognize cropped sections in the images. Now take our conversation here today, for example! I would just hold out the camera, and only my foot or part of the table leg would be in the picture. That would then be my memory of this afternoon. What is revealing about this kind of uncontrolled photography is that although in part only minute details or items are to be seen I still in most cases know where I took what. A piece of wall here. A power socket there. In an restaurant I held the camera first this way, then that. The images are so random that they are not even images of memories for me, either. They are essentially memories of themselves. I was there, without consciously seeing what I photographed. It is as if these images reminded me of things I did not actually notice when I was there.
SO WHAT’S THE REASON?
My impression is that abstract images of our meeting retain more of what we felt than would be the case if someone had set up his camera and had photographed us while we both sat here at the table talking. If you spend an evening with someone in a restaurant and talk, then you always just look at specific points. Those details touch you more than the thing as a whole.
WHAT DO TEND TO REMEMBER MOST? COLORS, COUNTRYSIDE OR PEOPLE?
P.L.: I remember the countryside, and I tend to recollect the deserts more than the lush valleys. The strongest visions and emotions arise in me when I stand before infinite expanses. And when facing such expanse I essentially remember the mood rather than the persons. The reason is perhaps that I bear within me a strong need for freedom, and it is somewhat curbed out there in the vastness. As there are neither walls nor buildings out there, everything is infinite.
WHAT IS YOUR BOND TO INDIA? THE CULTURE PERHAPS?
I have a lot of friends there, and it is there that I met my wife Petra. Which is why I go there fairly often. We like it because of our life there. And there’s a lot that ties me to the culture there. For the last 25 years I have meditated. Many wrongly believe some Ashram life in India is the essence of Buddhist philosophy per se, but that, like all other teachings, is not bound to a particular place.
ARE THERE OTHER REASONS WHY YOU PHOTOGRAPH IN INDIA?
The India book is not about India. It simply came into being there because I spent part of the winter there. Unfortunately I can’t show you any of the photos because I don’t keep them here in my studio. I didn’t want them to get mixed up with what I do here.
WHAT DOES THIS FORM OF MEMORY MEAN TO YOU?
Now let’s assume someone travels with his wife to the Taj Mahal and may only bring back one photo, what do you think he’ll shoot? Normally, he’ll photo his wife in front of the pools with the dome behind her. But he could just as easily show something quite incidental, something insignificant and coincidental that amazed him that day. Possibly, such a photo will bring more of the day back to him than would some long shot. You see a lot as details. Things seem the more intense, the closer you get to them. The coffee cups that I constantly see before me during our conversation will be my visual memory of our conversation today. For you, since you are sitting in a different position, it will possibly be the still life with flowers or the photos on the wall. What is close at hand becomes meaningful although it is completely insignificant.
ARE OR WERE OTHER PHOTOGRAPHERS A YARDSTICK FOR YOU TO MEASURE UP TO?
Always. The brain archives countless photos. Be it Cartier-Bresson’s man jumping over a puddle, or thousands of other images. The good ones radiate an energy that is contagious. Moreover, they seem to me like constant criticism of what I myself do. I work and work at my photos until I can feel their energy.
DO YOU EVER ASK WHY PHOTOS MADE BY OTHERS IMPRESS YOU?
Anyone who takes photos will see how someone else has gone about a shot and will also notice whether they’ve opted for cheap effects. There are photos which are quite unspectacular but are very moving. It is those photos I love most, they express so much although so little happens in them. It was only logical that I chose the head of a relatively unknown girl for the cover illustration for my book «Images of Women» and not some celebrity. No idea why that appeals to me. Probably the soft impenetrability of such an image. When you look at the photo you are drawn right into her gaze, and I find it a challenge to find out how that magic arises.
WHAT ROLE DOES EROTICISM PLAY FOR YOU?
I have no visual notion of eroticism. I usually find photos of nudes, which are commonly felt to be erotic, boring. For me, eroticism has more to do with mystery than with gazing at raw flesh. It is the mysterious and undecipherable properties of a woman that are erotic.
IS THERE A DIFFERENCE FOR YOU BETWEEN PHOTOGRAPHING MEN RATHER THAN WOMEN?
To my mind, every relationship between man and woman is erotically charged. And that’s the case when photographing, even if the photos are not erotic. You are on a voyage of discovery and therefore have to find your position and then you also see how you yourself behave. What I miss when photographing men is that indefinable erotic relationship.
IF I WERE A WOMAN, WHAT WOULD I TEASE OUT OF YOU THAT I CAN’T AS A MAN?
I’d perhaps present myself differently. But irrespective of whether you’re interviewed by a man or a woman, you want to be loved for what you represent. Perhaps there’s also some intellectual eroticism. After all, it’s written all over your face that you don’t write for a tabloid.
FOR YOU, WHAT PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE THE REAL GREATS?
First of all Kertesz with the images he photographed from the window of his Paris apartment. Although my favorite of his is the girl on the canapé. Someone like Richard Avedon, who as a fashion photographer was the first to do so many things – now him I admire as much as I do Irving Penn. Avedon’s show in the Whitney Museum a few years back disappointed me, because I had the feeling that he wanted to prevent anyone viewing him as a fashion photographer at all costs. In my opinion, he is the single most important fashion photographer of the last 50 years. He captured the energy of the street a good 40 years ago. His studio work from the 1960s is simply perfect. His entire oeuvre is as diverse as it is creative. I simply don’t understand why in the show he went and distanced himself from it.
HAVE YOU NEVER BEEN TEMPTED TO PHOTOGRAPH DURING A WAR?
I’ve often been asked why I did not go to Sarajevo like so many other photographers, with a TV team in tow and then photograph the war. And I always answer that it is unfair, if not downright impertinent to the reporters who cover the world’s flashpoints and are forever risking their lives, to simply act as if you were an equally committed photographer. There is no justification for that sort of an ego trip. Now, one great war photographer, although he has his enemies because some find his images too aesthetic, is Don McCullin, whose work I have admired for many years now.
WHAT KEY ENCOUNTERS STICK MOST IN YOUR MIND?
For example, ~~Milla Jovovich,~~ who I have been photographing for 13 years now. Now she is someone whose immense creative and poetic energy infects everyone present in the studio and let’s you see things you would otherwise not see that way. She’s an actress, a musician, and she writes poems and other texts. Every moment with her is special. Yet again there are people who come to the studio and where you know immediately, even if you make a good photograph without any great claims to brilliance, it’s going to be a boring day.
IS THERE ANYTHING THAT HAS POINTED YOU IN A SPECIAL DIRECTION?
If anything has really pushed me on to greater things, then it was experiences in India. I was fascinated 25 years ago by anything that came from India and had to do with gurus and scholars. At some point I joined the Maharishi followers. Since then I meditate each day, which has helped me ever since to approach things differently. A marvelous school to pass through. It influences so much if twice a day you are simply alone with yourself and without any thoughts and just find your way back to yourself. Such meditation has a quite holistic effect on you I must say.
DIDN’T YOU DABBLE IN DRUGS BACK DURING YOUR TIME AT THE ART COLLEGE.
After reading a text by Aldous Huxley on changes in perception, as an 18 year-old I conducted my own experiments with LSD. And if you experiment with it, with a little luck you can experience something like epiphany and grasp things you would otherwise not understand. The only problem is that afterwards everything is gone and the source of insight barren. Back then I sought in vain to retain what I experienced for mainstream reality, by taking notes and shooting Polaroids. Funnily enough, a little while back I came across a box of notes and various other things. They included jotting recording these experiments, and among other things I had scribbled down «I am everything».
LSD CHANGES YOUR PERCEPTION AND CONSCIOUSNESS.
You not only perceive everything around you differently, but you see yourself differently too. I was pointed in that direction by a book by Carlos Castaneda. He wrote books about a Mexican master called Don Juan, who used drugs to enter a trance and in this way established contact with his gods. Despite the loss of this different understanding of things, you retain the feeling of having once looked through the window. What you hear about gurus actually exists behind that wall. If you have once experienced it, its value does not get lost, even if you can no longer really remember its immensity and beauty.
Anyone who has experienced that will approach life differently than someone who has never come into contact with drugs. It’s a great adventure, thinking that there are things of which we cannot have the remotest idea. Many are astonished by how mild I am. Now that type of gentleness and a different understanding of things both come from meditating. The space that arises in you through meditation is more valuable than anything that ever enters you from the outside.