The Real Deal

He redefined beauty, challenged social norms and is credited with creating the supermodel – but for photographer PETER LINDBERGH it’s never been about fashion. A new retrospective charts the rise of the industry’s most influential antihero.
Peter LindberghPeter Lindbergh has a penchant for arguing that he’s not a fashion man. It’s both ironic and apt that his retrospective is titled ‘Peter Lindbergh – A Different Vision on Fashion Photography’. We meet a few days before it opens at the Kunsthal in Rotterdam. “Fashion is not at the center of my pictures,” he explains. “It’s not that I hate fashion, which some people have said, I can see the brilliant things the designers do, but it’s connected to the person in the clothes, more than the clothes.” You could argue that he loves fashion enough to try to change it. He has always sought to champion authenticity in a world of façade, relying on the charm and majesty of the women before his camera, rather than morphing the subject into a superficial vision of style.
It’s fitting that the first room of the exhibition is dedicated entirely to women – the supermodels. The 1988 image featuring Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington, entitled White Shirts (the only garment in the image), is displayed prominently. They play-fight on the beach, alongside four peers; hair tousled and tied naturally, smiles wide. Hanging nearby is the now instantly recognizable – and endlessly aped – 1990 British Vogue cover, featuring the two women again, alongside Cindy Crawford, Tatjana Patitz and Naomi Campbell, in jeans on the streets of New York City. That image of the five would go on to inspire George Michael’s ‘Freedom ’90’ video. With Lindbergh, the girls, rather than the clothes, are the dream and fantasy.
Peter Lindbergh

“Coming out of the 1980s, which was all big hair and boobs pushed up, it felt refreshing and new. And I loved the styling, those little Giorgio di Sant’Angelo bodysuits with our Levi’s.”

Given that Lindbergh has a way with models, it’s pertinent that the curator is Thierry-Maxime Loriot, a former model who, on his first attempt at exhibition-making, put together a smash hit with ‘The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier’. The show toured globally, from Montreal to Madrid, London to Melbourne and became the most visited fashion exhibition ever. Doubters were swiftly silenced. Lindbergh and he get on like a house on fire. “He’s like Santa,” says Loriot, smiling.

While Lindbergh’s images have often been classified as romantic or glamorous, largely due to the billowing shirts worn by beautiful women with flowing locks, the photographer is, to Loriot, just like Gaultier – a provocateur, social commentator and rebel. “Peter is a bit like a punk of photography; he’s a free spirit,” he insists. Indeed, that now famous White Shirts shot was rejected by American Vogue for being too modern, too real. “I think some people at Vogue felt quite personally attacked,” says Lindbergh. Liz Tilberis, then editor-in-chief of British Vogue, imported the rejected shoot and printed a few pages of it. But just six months later Anna Wintour took charge at American Vogue. “She said, ‘I would have given you 20 pages and the cover’,” he recalls. “Four years later, in the book On the Edge: Images from 100 Years of Vogue, Anna called it the most important image of the decade.”

Peter LindberghLindbergh’s foresight was that the time had come for a new style of beauty, and his commitment to stripping away excess underpins Loriot’s curation, hence the exhibition title, ‘A Different Vision’. Lindbergh remembers a split between those enthusiastic for a more natural look and those with more conservative tastes. “It was about the hair; the make-up; the jewelry,” he says. “But I’ve realized you’re a lot more beautiful if you take it all off. I understood that very quickly. And other people did, too. After those six girls on the beach, there was something new. Something interesting. It was time for change from the old look.”

Today, ‘real’ and ‘raw’ are buzz words in fashion photography. Magazines and brands have embraced the sense of spontaneity in images by the likes of Alasdair McLellan, Jamie Hawkesworth and Tyrone Lebon. Their pictures are united by natural light, a lack of overt use of Photoshop, candid smiles, awkward beauty, and quotidian settings. But when Lindbergh emerged, the industry was not so comfortable with effortlessness. The ‘old look’ he refers to relied on manipulation, veneer and high glamour. Together with peers such as Herb Ritts and Bruce Weber – now also celebrated genre definers – he championed something fresh and aspirational. You could call it the glorified ‘real’.

Peter LindberghIntrigued by this clash between old and new, Loriot had no desire to put together an exhibition just about elegance or style. “So boring,” he says, smiling. “The most important thing I wanted to reveal is the diversity and also the humanity that you find in his work. Now that everything is retouched there is no soul in images. There is only the cult of youth, beauty and perfection. For me, Lindbergh has been relevant since he started – and he still is, in a social context, very important.”

Another section of the Kunsthal show is called ‘Zeitgeist’ and takes the shape of a theatrical set that resembles Lindbergh’s huge archive. The team waded through more than half a million images selecting those that highlight how Lindbergh tackles certain social issues – sexuality and protest. Androgyny and gender fluidity, now also buzz words in fashion, have been the foundations of his work for decades. Some of the images show women in menswear – classic suits, with cropped hair – long before that became a trend. He likes to work with designers who are similarly forward-thinking. Loriot notes that Lindbergh was one of only a handful of photographers willing to shoot Jean Paul Gaultier’s controversial, and now infamous, conical bra.

Peter LindberghA more recent image is especially touching. In 2015 the jeweler Tiffany & Co commissioned Lindbergh to shoot its first engagement campaign featuring a same-sex couple. Who better to capture this moment than a man who has embraced such themes since starting out? “I love people who you look at and you don’t know what to think,” muses Lindbergh.

Born in Lissa in Germany in 1944, Lindbergh began his photography career in 1971, after years exploring other creative fields. He worked as a window dresser (a form of image-making in its own right) before enrolling at the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts in the early 1960s. “At art school I saw the most incredible and interesting women,” he remembers fondly. “They were aged between 20 and 25, and already had so much to say and so much to challenge. It was a real social study. I loved them all – just in T-shirts and jeans and tennis shoes. That wasn’t fashion. It was nothing. But it looks great.”

Those early years have led to a complex relationship with clothing – resulting in the conclusion that fashion should not occupy too big a part of your life. Lindbergh has no time for telling people what to buy, and doesn’t like the side of fashion that plays on insecurity. When we meet he’s dressed in a plain black, unbranded T-shirt, chinos and sneakers – there is no formality or affected poise to his appearance. In the context of a bustling gallery, mid-way through installation, he could pass for a technician or runner. It’s easy to forget that he’s one of the world’s most eminent fashion image-makers.

Peter LindberghAs much as Lindbergh’s images are informed by the same interest in ease that underpins his own wardrobe, they’re also motivated by a love of narrative. And he certainly has great stories to tell. I leave well stocked with anecdotes after we spend time flicking through his new book, sitting side-by-side gossiping like conspirators. He recalls how his working relationship with Azzedine Alaïa – he shot the designer striding through Paris with Tina Turner for Italian Vogue in 1989 – started because they shared the same accountant. “He said, ‘Oh, Azzedine, you are making quite a lot of money now; you are having to pay too much tax. Why don’t you give some of it to Peter, and he can shoot all your collections? Then you can deduct it from the tax’,” says Lindbergh, laughing. “He did it, and gave me all the freedom to do what I wanted.”

Words Lou Stoppard
Photography Peter Lindbergh
As seen in SALT February 2017