A MODERN MASTER OF FASHION PHOTOGRAPHY TALKS ABOUT HIS CAREER AND HIS SINGULAR VISION
As told to Mark Edward Harris, 2003 (United States)
Throughout 2003, American Photo will be celebrating its 25th anniversary with an exclusive series on modern legends of photography – men and women who have redefined the medium over the past quarter century. On the following pages, Peter Lindbergh offers a personal account of how he developed his singular style – a vision that has brought both spontaneity and the gritty reality of reportage to the fantasy world of fashion photography.
Born in 1944, Lindbergh grew up in the West German town of Duisburg, in the heart of the Ruhr coalfield. Lindbergh referenced this background in 1988 when he shot a memorable ad campaign for Comme des Garçons featuring models dwarfed by industrial-age machinery-photographs that helped propel him to the top of the fashion world.
He is probably best known for his luminous and evocative black-and-white imagery and his sensitive and often erotic pictures of women. His first book, Ten Women, was published in 1996 and sold 90,000 copies. His latest book is a lush retrospective, Peter Lindbergh: Stories.
>Here, Lindbergh talks about his remarkable career, his affinity for black-and-white film, his favorite supermodels, and his views on the nature of creativity.
When I began as a photo assistant in 1972, I had no clue about anything. I started out in a painting class in Germany, but the paintings we did evolved into what is called today «conceptual art.» It became too intellectual for me. I wanted to work with my hands and meet people every day. Why be an artist to do something you feel is useless?
I didn’t get the assistant job because I was qualified but because I was a friend of a friend of Hans Lux, a photographer in Germany who worked doing advertising, catalogs, still lifes – any kind of picture, just whatever came in. Hans showed me Balcar strobes in his studio, and I remember being totally astonished that somebody used lights in that way.
After a year and a half, I thought I could go out on my own. I built a little studio in a loft in Düsseldorf. I wanted to be an advertising photographer. ~~It was~~ the only thing I knew. Very quickly – within one year – I became well known in Germany, and in three years I got paid the most money of all German advertising photographers. I said, «My God, what’s happening?»
One of my first ad campaigns was for Samson, the tobacco where you roll the cigarettes yourself. I went to Amsterdam and went up to people on the street who were rolling cigarettes and photographed them. The style was totally reportage and unstaged. I don’t know why I wanted to do the photographs like that. I basically felt that staged pictures were just stupid.
In 1977 I got a call from a famous German art director, Willy Fleckhaus – a kind of German Alexey Brodovitch. He said, «Your pictures are very editorial. Do you want to work for me and do stories?» So I did a fashion story on the Paris designer Kenzo, and Willy got me ten pages in the magazine Moda & Vonen. I did this story totally innocent – l had no real culture in photography. I knew a little bit of the work of Hans Feurer, Penn, and Avedon, but that was all I knew. I made myself a background, a 4×8-meter painted fabric, one with little spots very pointillistic spots, like grainy film – and shot this stuff that apparently was unusual for the time.
After that, Stern magazine called and said, «Go to Paris and cover the new collections – we’ll give you 14 pages. Just shoot the same style.» I did this and it was a spectacular story. Marie Claire saw it and gave me a verbal contract, saying, «Move to Paris and well do something every month with you.» A few months later I moved. Then Rei Kawakubo came to Paris as a designer, and we started working together on the ad campaigns for Comme des Garçons.
>It’s hard to say when I developed a passion for black-and-white photographs.
Early in my career American Vogue contacted me. The style of fashion photography was much different then. I met with Alexander Liberman, and he said, «You are a young photographer, so why tell me that you don’t want to work for American Vogue? We are the leading fashion magazine.» I said, «can’t match my mind with your image of a woman – the perfect makeup, the perfect hair, always in the most beautiful apartment. That is not my feeling of a woman.» And he said, «Okay. Do a story and bring me back some pictures of what you think a woman could be.» I went to L.A. with an editor, Carlyn Cerf du Dudzeele. The first problem was with the fashion. I said, «Let’s put a great cast of models together and put them all in just white shirts.» We went to the beach with Tatjana Patitz, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Karen Alexander, Rachel Williams, and Estelle Hallyday, and I shot them totally natural. I still love the pictures. ~~I came~~ back to New York, and everyone just looked at each other and said, «Hmmmm, it’s great.» They didn’t know what to do with them. The pictures ended up running small in a story about how hair could be loose on the beach.
>What interests me most is the face, the personality.
It’s hard to say when I developed a passion for black-and-white photographs. I think that in photographing models, or whatever, what interests me most is the face, the personality. I’ve often shot the same person in the same setup with a roll of color and a roll of black and white. Then I look at the results. Black and white just brings out the personality more. I think that’s what it really is. I did a black-and-white picture of Sharon Stone for Harper’s Bazaar, and I think it’s a beautiful picture of her – she’s beautiful and she’s strong. I did the same shot in color, and it just looks like an advertising picture.
>Karl Lagerfeld once said that being German «in the best possible sense» has played an important role in my work.
I had a short period where I shot 8×10, but it’s too complicated; you get so involved in the technique. I shoot maybe 70 percent in 35mm, often with Plus-X, rated at 50 ISO. You have no grain; it’s great. I shoot with Nikons. I also shoot with a Pentax 6×7. These days I also usually work with a digital back. When I started I did everything with flash, and then I went into tungsten. Now when I’m in the studio I do everything with HMI. Outside of the studio its natural light-total reportage. When I work, I never sit there and think, «God, what am I going to do?» It’s a natural process. Karl Lagerfeld once said that being German «in the best possible sense» has played an important role in my work. I think that’s true. It is heavier or a little more truthful than the work of maybe most of the other fashion photographers. The photographs for Comme des Garçons, which we made in an old factory in Nancy, France, I think are among my personal favorites because of ~~their intensity~ and because they show my roots. Where I come from in Germany looks like that.
Where does creativity come from? Why does one person take better pictures than another person does? It must be from the culture you have – not just from going to museums as a child, but from all the things you’ve seen and experienced consciously and subconsciously. It’s an amazing thing
As told to Mark Edward Harris, from Faces of the 20th Century (Abbeville Press, 1998).