Photographers tend to present models as static, passive objects. Peter Lindbergh offers life and soul. Peter Lindbergh believes in fairies. Lounging around with this bear of a man, you get a sense not of one of fashion photography’s stars, nor of one of its richest participants. Here’s a great big soft-centred guy who, if he clapped his hands, would expect the little people to pop up from behind the sofa.
>Lindbergh’s vision has always been informed by exuberant characters and fairy-tales that can come true.
His world-view informs some of the best fashion photography of the past decade. Romance is often undervalued in this world (‘real life’ images of waifs lying by radiators are more in vogue at the moment); but Lindbergh’s vision has always been informed by exuberant characters and fairy-tales that can come true.
Harper’s Bazaar in New York recently commissioned Lindbergh to shoot pictures of white clothes. He put them on an angel: not an airbrushed angel, but a careworn lithe sprite exhausted from rescuing lost souls. When he told Fabien Baron, art director of the magazine, Baron thought the idea was stupid. «And I said, ‘So. I do it anyway,’» says Lindbergh. He did. It worked because it looks so true, fulfilling our secret desire for angels to watch over us.
Lindbergh sees angels through his lens, balancing, if not on the head of a pin, then on bits of downtown New York. His pictures have narratives: of a girl who wants to run away with the circus, or a man who believes that extraterrestrials come down to earth and fly a few feet away from the front of his car.
Lindbergh himself says he had a strong sense of an alien presence while driving out of Las Vegas, which inspired a shoot for Italian Vogue. In the resulting pictures, ~~Helena Christensen~~ is shown abandoning her car and walking off down a dirt track to a new life with a funny little man with antennae. You hope they live happily ever after.
Of course, many photographers aim to be fantastical; often the viewer’s response is to ask whet on earth the model is supposed to be doing. But in Lindbergh’s work it all looks perfectly logical. He never uses models as improbable coat hangers for impossible clothes. He takes clothes and creates situations where weird and wonderful things do happen. But in the process, he never loses sight of the woman wearing them.
>Lindbergh returns to the same models over and again, not necessarily because they are symmetrically beautiful, but because he senses something behind their eyes of which they themselves may be unaware.
Quite the contrary. Some other photographers seem to reduce the women in their pictures ‚ «in order to take their revenge on them,» suggests photographer Jeanloup Sieff, «or because they have not found any other means of exerting power over them. It is obvious in Peter Lindbergh’s photographs that he loves women who love him back.»
Lindbergh, who says his modern goddess is « someone with her own space, who won’t get caught up and dragged under the wheels », adores women. He returns to the same models over and again, not necessarily because they are symmetrically beautiful, but because he senses something behind their eyes of which they themselves may be unaware.
«When I first started working with Tatjania [Patitz], people said ‘but she’s big, she’s . . . fat’, To me, she had mystery. And Amber [Valleta], people said, but she’s just a little thing, but I knew she had this whole world in her head. People said Kirsten [McMenemy] looked like a chicken. To me, she looks like a woman to whom things have happened.»
All Lindbergh’s models look like women who have lived‚ which is perhaps why his photographs are so appealing to other women. The subjects are beautiful, but although they are playing characters, the participants themselves are not transformed.
As Sarajane Hoare, a stylist who has worked with Lindbergh for years, explains: «He hates foundation. He hates covering the real woman. Whatever the story, whether it is Medieval Guinevere or ~~Josephine Baker,~~ he still wants the person in front of him to come through. And then he falls in love with them. You can see it happening ‚ suddenly he’s skipping about, singing ‚ it really is a sheer pleasure. And because he’s in love he sees intelligence, mystery, depth, which I don’t think some of these models really have.»
Whether they have it or not, Lindbergh mines something. Rather than taking away a subject’s soul, Lindbergh’s camera brings it to the surface. All his images come complete with a sense that these are women with stories to tell. No other photographer does it better. In fact, no one else gets close to doing anything like it at all.
>Lindbergh likes what is right in front of him. « If he sees a puddle, he’ll jump in it. Snow, and he’ll get the models out in it, » says Sarajane Hoare.
When Anna Wintour took over the editorship of US Vogue in 1988, she needed a front cover that signalled change. She wanted gaiety and optimism: Lindbergh gave it to her in the image of a tousle-haired, ungroomed natural woman, laughing at an off-side joke while wearing low-slung Levi’s and an haute couture top by Lacroix. But there is also a dark side to his work ‚ the brooding shadows of German Expressionism, of huge and monstrous machines, of bleak beaches made more windswept by the addition of off-camera wind machines whipping up the sand into bleary red eyes.
Lindbergh rarely participates in the fashion circus. He doesn’t attend the shows, unlike his competitors Patrick Demarchelier and Steven Meisel, who are always sure to make their mark. Lindbergh says he stays away because ‘it would be like seeing 20 movies in a week. I prefer to see three movies in a year. The less you see, the more you know. »
When I ask what characterises his work, he replies that « the model always has to be a person… I take the make up off a Meisel model. » Steven Meisel, whom Lindbergh says he hasn’t seen « for a while », has added a new word to fashion’s vocabulary. For a fledgling model to be « Meiselled » is for her to be transformed. Lindbergh laughs at the notion that anyone could be « Lindberghed ». « Steven is like a real fashion-oriented person, » he says, « a kind of Warhol who changes people into what he wants. I choose people for the way they are. It is not better, but different. »
Lindbergh likes what is right in front of him. « If he sees a puddle, he’ll jump in it. Snow, and he’ll get the models out in it, » says Sarajane Hoare. « He likes things to be familiar. He doesn’t need exotic locations, in fact he’s rather uncomfortable in them sometimes. » »Why go to Jamaica? » asks Lindbergh, who tends to avoid the gravy-train of far-flung locations and big expense budgets that has become so important in fashion imagery, « If I’m shooting clothes, I feel, why not just do it here? »
Recently, « here » was Manhattan, which shocked some of the people he ~~worked with~~. « Linda [Evangelista] didn’t get it. She said ‘Pete, what are we doing here?’ and I had to explain that she was being the woman who would wear these clothes, just walking round the block at 56th Street. »
In his recent work, Lindbergh has made a point of rediscovering the cities under his nose, those cities in which women actually buy expensive clothes. Uptown Manhattan seemed the obvious location to show the New York collections; downtown perhaps an odder choice for boudoir-tattered slips and crinolines by John Galliano. Brooklyn has long been a favourite « perhaps because it reminds me of Duisburg in Germany‚ a dark city where I come from. »
He came to photography late. Born in 1944, he studied painting in Berlin and became a conceptual artist «repeating things that had endless possibilities». He moved to Paris in 1978 having had pictures published in TWEN, the German equivalent of the legendary Nova, and having shot advertisements.
But what made him famous throughout the fashion world was his picture, taken in 1985, of six girls on the beach, all in white shirts, all hard-working models, but none of them household names. The picture appeared in British Vogue. Liz Tilberis (now the editor of Harper’s Bazaar in America but then the editor of Vogue in London) went on to commission a front cover, with some changes to the cast, which appeared in 1990. For this, Lindbergh took a group shot of Cindy, Christy, Naomi, Linda and Tatjana against Tilberis’ wishes in black and white‚ and the supermodels became public property. While Steven Meisel certainly hyped the trinity of Christy, Linda and Naomi in his work, it was Lindbergh’s (early) pictures that first portrayed these models as women, personalities, stars.
>Although the components in his work are simple to identify, there’s an alchemy that no one else has yet been able to replicate.
His work looks so effortless. Take a couple of dreamy women, an old car, a camera and you could do it too, is the myth that hundreds of fledgling Lindberghs have fallen for. It isn’t that easy.
Although the components in his work are simple to identify, there’s an alchemy that no one else has yet been able to replicate. That there is no « replacement » Lindbergh is proven by his stack of big-buck advertising campaigns. Lindbergh works for a score of rival companies: Giorgio Armani, Jil Sander, Donna Karan, and Lancôme among them. They would probably all prefer to use a photographer who didn’t work for their competitors. But there isn’t one. If you want romance and a soul glowing from behind the eyes, Lindbergh is your man, Rival magazines have tried to find another Lindbergh too; the fact that he has just been at the centre of a contract battle suggests that they havent managed it either. When Lindberghs contract to Harpers Bazaar came up for renewal recently, negotiations took place with Vogue, Bazaar‘s bitter competitor.
Two years ago, Alexandra Shulman ran a Lindbergh cover in her first month as editor of British Vogue. Then Condé Nast New York, the parent company, let it be known that if Lindbergh worked for Harper’s Bazaar, which was at the time undergoing a relaunch, he would never work for any Condé Nast title anywhere in the world again. The same threat was applied to Patrick Demarchelier and Steven Meisel. Lindbergh and Demarchelier decided to take their chances. At the eleventh hour, Meisel was wooed back into the Vogue camp. But Vogue has none the less been feeling Lindbergh’s absence, and he was therefore invited into the fold again.
Vogue‘s American press officer, Paul Wilmot, refuses to say anything about it. But Shulman can’t deny that she’s been back in touch with Lindbergh. « We’d love to work with him again, » she admitted, shortly before these pages went to press, before conceding that « He’s not going to leave Harper’s Bazaar for peanuts. » And so it proved. Despite the attractions of Vogue‘s offer, Harper‘s, anxious not to lose the magic of fashion’s great romantic, made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.