Moments of Truth
Essay by Wim Wenders (as published by Schirmer/Mosel in Peter Lindbergh: Images of Women II), May 2016 (United States)
Spanning the last thirty years, this exhibition explores Peter Lindbergh’s impact on the world of fashion photography and his contribution to portraiture in general. The beauty of his female subjects is purposeful, self-possessed, and uninhibited. With little styling or setting to divert attention, Lindbergh’s approach emphasizes the raw physical grace of his sitters.
Wim Wenders, filmmaker, author, and photographer, elaborates on the works by Peter Lindbergh in an essay originally published by Schirmer/Mosel in Peter Lindbergh: Images of Women II.
>"I’m sick to death of seeing things
>From tight-lipped, condescending, mama’s little chauvinists
>All I want is the truth
>Just gimme some truth now ..."
Recently, I stood for a good ten minutes in a Paris gallery in front of a larger-than-life-sized portrait of Kate Moss that Peter Lindbergh had taken in 1994. I had seen it before; I’m sure you know it, too. But alone, framed and on a large wall, it somehow pulled me towards itself and wouldn’t let me go.
I moved closer to the picture so I could see every pore and every hair. I took a few steps back so I could appreciate the entire face and, incredulous, I moved closer once again ...
Utterly separate from how “realistic,” “present,” or “sculptural” this young woman appeared in this photo, it was, above all, another strong impression that leapt out at me completely unexpectedly, and I only have one word for it: “Truthfulness.”
I certainly don’t use the concept frivolously and, if I stop to think about it, I hardly ever use it at all. After all, Lord knows this feeling doesn’t come often these days ...
An aura of truth is also, often, a fleeting impression quickly sweeping over you, and then it’s over. But not with this picture. This one remained solidly laden with truth.
>Kate Moss looked at me and said: “This is me." Utterly and absolutely.
~~How could this~~ be true in an environment of—in the broadest sense of the phrase— “fashion photography?” When I looked around the exhibit, this categorization certainly wasn’t wrong and, by the way, this is free of any judgement in my eyes. But: in the context of fashion and photography, to come upon the notion of “truth”—that, at least, seemed amazing. But it couldn’t be denied.
So I stood there, thunderstruck. Kate Moss looked at me and said: “This is me." Utterly and absolutely. Fashion photography or not, THIS here ... IS ... ME! I can’t reveal any more of myself: without any mask, without any caution. Who are YOU? Will you ever dare expose yourself to the camera like this?”
This picture (or rather, the person portrayed in it) is certainly an icon of the twentieth (and meanwhile twenty-first) century. Other images of women also have such an aura, but
they mostly stem from the history of painting, rendered by da Vinci, Vermeer, Petrus Christus, Botticelli, or Antonello da Messina. But I am standing here in front of a photo and am raising the idea of “truth”?
Few ideas are more dangerous when speaking about photography! The word simply doesn’t belong in this context, and is only becoming more out of place. In contemporary parlance — in the arts as well as in entertainment — it is (justifiably?) scorned, deemed inappropriate. “True” has become a “4-letter word.”
>In Peter Lindbergh’s portraits of women I see a search for truth: Nothing more and nothing less.
So I was extremely curious when, a little later, the mail brought an early version of this book from the publisher accompanied by the question: Would I like to write about this? It was not yet printed so beautifully, like the copy you’re holding in your hands but this entire, wonderful collection of female portraits could be inspected in the form of photocopies. Flipping through them the first time, I of course wanted to confirm my impression from the Paris gallery right away. Was Kate Moss a one-off ?
No! That was immediately clear! Many of these women looked at me just as genuinely. And in these undissembling gazes, eye to eye (but even if they looked into the distance or closed their eyes), it often appeared again — that “moment of truth” ... that “I am this and nothing different,” that “I display myself like an open book,” “just look, and the closer you look, the more you will see who I am. I have nothing to hide.”
For that reason, I can’t let my text fail to meet that standard and I need to make my point straightforwardly. So I’ll say what I feel, even if I’m blurting it out: In Peter Lindbergh’s portraits of women I see a search for truth: Nothing more and nothing less. (And, of course, one could or should also speak about other aspects of these pictures, about all the beauty, for example, but here, I want to focus exclusively on my line of curious questioning.)
~~The aura~~ of truthfulness emanating from these portraits is no accident in the pictures of Peter Lindbergh. He clearly searches for it; he wants it; he knows, then — he must know! — under what conditions it appears. What, exactly, does this quality consist of? And why is it so unmistakable in these photos, so much so that they’re immediately recognizable as being by Peter Lindbergh?
I flip further through the book and, again and again, I’m compelled to stop at one image or another. Yes, there is Kate Moss again, years later, in a completely different photo, but revealing to me again that same unrestrained honesty.
Or Charlotte Rampling, whose eyes gaze at the observer in a manner at once scrutinizing and loving ... or the limpid, “unconditional” look of Tilda Swinton, that seems to brook no lies...
>Peter Lindbergh has imbued his lens with an incorruptible love of truth when dealing with women.
Robin Wright, too: whether she looks away or straight at the camera, even when she only shows her back, she confirms my suspicion: Peter Lindbergh has imbued his lens with an incorruptible love of truth when dealing with women. This is equally true for many of the faces unknown to me, which, in some cases, are even more shocking.
No, not every picture, but many attest to this phenomenon; you encounter it page after page regardless of whether the women are younger or older. (They don’t care about that, either.)
Crazy: that the couple of “man pictures” (in the truest sense) that are scattered throughout the volume only break the narrative flow insofar as the men, it seems to me, play their cards close to the vest and, at most, allow us the question: “How much woman is there in this man?” But perhaps the men are fighting a losing battle? Whatever the reason, the aura of truthfulness doesn’t want to appear in equal measure. Did Peter Lindbergh not seek it in these pictures of men, or did he not even want to find it?
>“The image” reveals the photographer (and the painter) “behind it.”
~~What alchemy~~ exists in this photographer’s relationship between his camera and the women portrayed?
I’m leaving the door I used to enter the house wide open and I appeal to you: come in and see for yourself! Maybe you will see something that I do not see (yet), maybe you have another connection to his secret ...
This is, it seems to me, the domain of a man who left behind and transcended fashion photography—or, better yet, photography as a form? At some point, he must have noticed that he has this gift of seeing women differently. (Or is it the other way around? That he has a gaze that enables women to show themselves differently?)
To try to understand this, I need to return to terra firma. What I know from experience: every portrait is a reciprocal relationship, a dialogue between the photographer and the person in front of him. I think this goes back to painting. “The image” reveals the photographer (and the painter) “behind it.” Every vision attests to what he saw, and thereby shows itself, hidden, latent, but somehow perceptible. Behind all these moments of truth to which one bears witness when beholding these portraits of women, the gaze of Peter Lindbergh must (in aggregate?) emerge and become something
to be examined.
We are friends, and Peter often looks at me in a friendly way, in the truest sense of the word, but does that tell me how he sees women? And why they look back at him so open(hearted)ly?
Maybe I have a privileged way of figuring this out, because in one of these portraits of women, my wife is the one looking back at me! I know no one in the world better than Donata; I’ve felt no one’s gaze on me more often than hers, never looked anyone as deeply in the eyes ... Would this picture be able to grant me an insight?
The longer I study this photo of my wife, the more I have to realize, accept, admit: that’s not how I know this pair of eyes! When I want to photograph my wife, it quickly becomes something private already (the thin line between “private” and “personal” is quickly crossed ...), and then I also have to struggle with this phenomenon that she, as a photographer, doesn’t like to be photographed her- self (a very common professional disorder ...). But here, there’s absolutely no trace of any of that at all!
~~What is it~~, then, that she shows here, and/or what does Peter Lindbergh in turn show me? What is it about the lens of his camera that causes women to look into it so “honestly”? “Openheartedly” comes to mind, and it’s a better word once one forgets its mildly offensive sound. “With an open heart ...”
Donata wouldn’t look at herself this way in a mirror. No, she is not regarding herself in this picture! None of the women in this book is doing that. There’s no trace of conceit or narcissism. On the contrary: Each one of these women knows she’s being seen ...
My wife is also being seen here and is thereby consenting to an exchange of looks and knows that this is about something, knows (perhaps I’m approaching the essence, now) that this is about the truth ...
>That’s exactly the invisible, inverse snapshot in these photographs that shows up in all Peter's pretty pictures of women as if it were a watermark.
The truthfulness we set out to investigate here must be a reciprocal process! The photographer, too, who emerges in these pictures in an inverse snapshot, must have also revealed himself unconditionally and with equal honesty ... Might that be the key?!
My wife smiles when I share my suspicion with her. She nods. Given the enthusiasm and cheerfulness with which Peter Lindbergh looks over the edge of his camera one can’t help but trust him completely. And then she says, almost as an aside: “He puts his whole heart into it.”
There you have it! That’s exactly the invisible, inverse snapshot in these photographs that shows up in all his pretty pictures of women as if it were a watermark: his open-hearted, undissembling, enthusiastic gaze that emanates from himself and shows the truth he wants to see, the truth he radically demands in a dialogue between eyes that is based entirely on reciprocity.
I’m thinking about the utopia of a better world in which this would always be something natural and simple between men and women and come to the conclusion that it isn’t only beauty that lies in the (proverbial) eye of the beholder but also truthfulness.
And with that, I finally know what Kate Moss wanted to tell me about Peter Lindbergh!
From the Schirmer/Mosel book Peter Lindbergh: Images of Women II, reprinted with the kind permission of Schirmer/Mosel, Munich