JUST A SCHMUCK, JUST A FASHION PHOTOGRAPHER
by Joanna Coles, May 1999 (United Kingdom)
Peter Lindbergh invented the supermodel and revolutionised fashion photography, as these images from his latest book demonstrate. Yet the unpretentious German provides a refreshing contrast to the norms of his industry, refusing to elevate it to art-form status and resolutely not caring what colour is the new black
Peter Lindbergh, maker of the supermodel, has just returned from Greenland. «Donna had this idea,» he says, his big, tanned face cracking into a fat, white grin. «Donna called me from Thailand and she said, ‘You know, for the year 2000, I think we want the innocence of the ice. I want something that represents hope for the new century.’»
«I was thinking, ‘She sounds ridiculous, she’s gone too far.’ But then, when I went there it was like, wow, how could she know this? It was exactly what I felt. A total innocence and unspoiltness.»
It is 9.30pm and we are sitting on Lindbergh’s terrace, a perk of his regular penthouse suite at the ~~SoHo Grand Hotel~~. «Greenland was really something else,» he says. «It was wonderful, incredible, pure and absolutely silent. You come back to New York and it’s like you’ve woken up in a waste basket.» Donna is Donna Karan, for the German-born fashion photographer is on first-name terms with everyone in the fashion business. The Calvin he talks about is Calvin Klein, for whom he created the Eternity campaign. «Calvin said, ‘Go and do something nice. Go to Hawaii and spend $3 or $4 million.’» The Cindy, Christy and Linda are respectively Crawford, Turlington and Evangelista, three of the ten supermodels whose careers he kick-started and then kept fuelling throughout the Nineties.
>His name may not be household, but his images are.
«I hate this room,» he says, re-emerging from the gloom of his minimalist grey suite, waving a chaste bottle of Evian. «But this terrace!» We stare out across the Manhattan sky, past the gold-tipped New York Life tower, past the Empire State Building, tonight floodlit in red, past the glittering steeple of the Chrysler building. «It’s magnificent, ja?»
It is not an exaggeration to say that over the past 20 years Lindbergh’s photography has revolutionised the way fashion is presented. His name may not be household, but his images are. He’s the master of black and white and grey. Donna, Calvin, Ralph, Jil, Giorgio and Karl have all bought in. So too has Vogue – British, American, French, Australian and Italian – Elle, Marie Claire, Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar and just about any other fashion magazine you care to name.
Moody but unpretentious, quirky but comprehending, his fashion shots tell stories. His models («I never retouch»), stare out from the unexpected location. They lean their smooth Jil Sander suits against massive industrial pylons (a lingering influence from his upbringing at the heart of the Ruhr coalfields). They pose in Armani sheaths with bare feet and dirty toenails. As we gaze at the skyline, I wonder if he’s conscious of possessing a different eye to the rest of us? «Ja. Always,» he grins. «I’m very sensitive to light and shadows. Photography contains shadows, light and dark, contrasts?»
He points to the black, abstract statue on the terrace, complete with an ominous hollow eye through which we can see the purple sky. «It’s so beautiful to look at this thing,» he says. «You think the sky is dark, but it’s not really, it all depends on the light. I’m fascinated by the shadows of trees on the floor. I always have the feeling I’ve missed a picture.» He laughs, bitten nails curling round his glass. «But I’d get a heart attack if I tried to get them all.»
>"I try to catch the truth, to strip away what they’re trying to put between themselves and the camera."
Born in 1944, Lindbergh started photographing his brother’s children, not thinking he would ever turn ~~professional~~. «There was something incredible there, it was the innocence – children don’t put anything between themselves and the camera. But when you photograph adults, they’re always concerned about how they look. I try to catch the truth, to strip away what they’re trying to put between themselves and the camera.» Far from spending his youth in a darkroom, his hobby turned professional only after he stumbled into it. «After art school I was bored,» he says. «I knew I didn’t want to be an artist. A friend was looking for a photographic assistant. I was totally astonished to work with light. I had never even seen a flash before. I said, ‘What’s this for?’» He crams a kettle chip into his grin and guffaws. «I was 27 and I was so naive.»
After five years he shed his naivety to become Germany’s highest paid advertising photographer, snapping the first print campaign for the Volkswagen Golf. From there it was a short step to fashion and creating some of the cleverest, funniest fashion shots around. In his book, Images of Women, which was accompanied by an exhibition at London’s Hamilton Gallery, Amber Valletta appears as an angel, her feathered beauty contrasted with a seamy New York street. Another image has Evangelista flying across a similar scene and Naomi Campbell fooling around like a latter-day Josephine Baker. But where did the confidence come from to force models out of the studio and up against Lindbergh’s favourite industrial, inner-city backdrops?
«It was not, ‘Oh my God, this is a genius.’ It came all by itself. Once you master the instrument, you can play with it,» he says cheerfully. «Today kids of 21, 22, they produce one good picture and editors jump on them and squeeze them like a citron before they even have time to become something. It’s very much a pity.»
It was Lindbergh’s cover for British Vogue in January 1990 that was to be his greatest influence on the fashion world. «Liz Tilberis [the then editor] said to me, ‘Why don’t you do something which will define the next decade? Do the cover to represent the Nineties.’ I don’t believe in ~~futuristic things~, but I took the strongest faces I knew and put them together. It was Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Tatjana Patitz, Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell, the five of them.» And lo, the supermodel was born.
«Suddenly they were everywhere,» he says. «The hype was devastating. And pretty soon every model represented something. Cindy and Claudia took the commercial approach. They were more business women than artists, they never changed their visual appearance. They saw themselves as products and they made by far the most money.
«Other models like Linda made a lot of money by being much more interesting, re-inventing herself – she was much more of an artist. It’s incredible what great models can give you. They’re like performance artists. People think it’s the photographer, but it’s not. For ten years I worked with ten models. Now you work three times with a new model and it’s, ‘Oh, you already worked with her, why don’t you try someone new?’ The supermodel is definitely over,» he says ruefully. «It’s a different moment.»
>"It’s nice to be normal – it’s much easier."
What did he make of its flipside, heroin chic? «It was a reaction to the supermodels, a reaction against their celebrity status and things like the touched-up Revlon photos. They took the same girls and they made them ugly, which is as unacceptable as retouching them. I’ve never understood heroin chic.»
The sounds of the city drift up to the ninth floor. We go inside and turn the pages of his new book, ~~Peter Lindbergh~~, a portfolio of his recent work, published by Assouline. «Look at this face,» he says, pointing to a model dressed as a bridesmaid. «So interesting. But they said to me, ‘Why did you choose her? She looks like a potato.’» He flicks forward several more pages and shows the same girl in men’s clothing, looking exquisite. It brings us to the obligatory question: what is beauty? «I don’t like fake things. Whatever the context – even in fashion – you don’t have to be stupid. There’s a truth in every face and it’s great when you can catch it.» He trails off.
«I rarely go to the shows because everybody jumps up at you and kisses you and, oh, it’s crazy. It’s really very funny. When you see my two assistants, they look like farmers. They’re normal and that’s a kick for me. It’s nice to be normal – it’s much easier.» He is beginning to sound suspiciously like a fashion photographer who doesn’t like fashion. «I do like fashion,» he says defensively. «But I’m not interested if blue and green are in – that’s boring. The important point is how people use it. My father didn’t go to the shops twice a month to re-position himself in a new outfit – he had one costume and two jackets. The way people are into shopping these days is crazy – every week trying to buy something new. But that’s their way of expressing themselves. I guess if you work in a supermarket, how do you get noticed or feel like you belong? You buy all the right things and become part of a group, ja? The next thing will be interior design and people expressing themselves through their apartments. In five years, there will be furniture and fashion shops everywhere.»
After 20 years, Lindbergh’s work continues to be everywhere. How does he keep his creative interest, and who does he enjoy working for most? «Italian Vogue,» he says. «It’s the freest instrument for Bruce [Weber] and Steven [Meisel] and myself – we can do whatever we want there and it’s great. Franca Sozzani [the editor] is a genius. My work for American Vogue is not very interesting. Even if Anna Wintour [the editor] said, ‘Do whatever you want’, I couldn’t because they wouldn’t use it. Italian Vogue is for creative people. I always say I wouldn’t be a photographer if Italian Vogue didn’t exist.»
>"I’m a fashion photographer. I know, its a horrible word, no one wants to be a fashion photographer, so I insist on the phrase."
Is it all as glamorous as it sounds? «I have a terrace in New York and a beautiful apartment in Paris and a driver and take the Concorde, but I don’t think that’s glamorous. I really need it.» ~~Oh, come on,~~ throw in working with Valletta, Kate Moss and Nadja Auermann and that sounds about as good as it gets. «Ja, but I can be working in three different countries a week. I do need the Concorde,» he says earnestly. «And I never go to parties. I think parties are a waste of time.» He seems so down to earth, I wonder how he copes with all the cocaine and tantrums? «The models behave differently with everyone. There are other, more glamorous boys, and they behave differently with them, but with me they’re totally normal. They’re never stupid or eccentric because I am normal. I say ‘Good morning’ like everyone else, with my sneakers on.»
Given this no-nonsense approach, has he never considered a break from fashion by say, apeing Annie Leibovitz – who snapped Sarajevo for American Vogue – and carting his crew off to Kosovo? «Oh no, there are so many people doing that for a living, risking their life and not getting paid much. And then I arrive with a fanfare and three TV teams at my back and it’s like Peter Lindbergh Comes to Kosovo. I think that would be terrible. I’m a fashion photographer. I know, its a horrible word, no one wants to be a fashion photographer, so I insist on the phrase. But I couldn’t go and do a week about the world’s problems and then come back and shoot a Lancôme ad for $50,000. I’d feel really awful. I’d prefer people to say, ‘You’re just a schmuck. You’re just a fashion photographer.»