When you think of famous fashion photographers, a few names come to mind: Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin, Mario Testino and perhaps Herb Ritts. There is another name, however, that is just as iconic: Peter Lindbergh. You could say that Lindbergh’s work ushered in a new aesthetic paradigm for the pages of glossy magazines. His images of Christy Turlington, Tatjana Patitz, Cindy Crawford, Kate Moss, Karen Alexander, among others, turned them into supermodels. Coinciding with his major retrospective at the Kunsthal in Rotterdam, Taschen has recently released a major career monograph with over four hundred photographs from his oeuvre. We caught up with Lindbergh at a recent signing in Beverly Hills to discuss his work and influences.
OLIVER KUPPER: When and why did you first pick up a camera?
PETER LINDBERGH: I had an interview two or three weeks ago, with somebody in Germany. They said, be truthful with us, because we know why people pick up cameras: to get close to the girls. I said that I was very interested in photography. I was an artist and then I stopped doing art, specifically paintings. I didn’t feel like it was the right thing. And then I became a photographer. That was very accidental in a way. And I felt very fast that it was a wonderful thing.
KUPPER: So you fell in love with it.
LINDBERGH: I felt that that, wow, that was the right thing. I had to stop art to see what I wanted to do...I could have been a florist or a baker or something but I wasn’t.
KUPPER: Where in Germany was this?
KUPPER: And this was shortly after the war?
LINDBERGH: No, it was really late actually. 1973.
KUPPER: You were working alongside a lot of really big photographers, like Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin. What were your reflections of them and what were their reflections of you?
Lindbergh: It wasn’t so much that I knew them, I knew of their work.The first professional job I did was for Stern Magazine, which Helmut and Guy Bourdin was a part of. That was a big portfolio. Something that happened twice a year like what LIFE magazine does for fashion twice a year. And that was something, that was very fun.
KUPPER: What were some of the most important lessons that you learned when you were first taking pictures and lessons that you still carry with you, lessons that you left behind?
Lindbergh: Not much. I did a lot of really odd things. I was always excited. But looking back today for the first 5 years, whatever I did wasn’t really something to talk about. After Stern, everything started. I did that portfolio. It was striking. From there, I got a lot of calls. From people like Marie Claire, who said come to Paris, we’ll give you a contract just for that one story.
KUPPER: Were you bored of the fashion and the glamour that was going on?
LINDBERGH: No, at that time I had no real idea of what was going on in the fashion world. I am bored of the glamour today. You see the Oscars today and they walk down the carpet and sometimes they can’t, they can’t even walk in those heels -- I should shut my mouth.
KUPPER: No it’s okay, I think people should talk back about the industry.
LINDBERGH: You have twelve to fifteen of the favorite actors in the world. They come and walk the red carpet. You know what I would say if I came to the Oscars and I had done a wonderful movie for 12 months or so, and as I walked up the red carpet, someone asked, ‘Wow, what is your jacket?’ I would say, ‘Fuck off.’ That’s what I would say. They’re obsessed. With fashion, there is too much money. So much success.
KUPPER: Some of your earliest photographs especially with Vogue, they were really stripped down. You weren’t using stylists or anything like that.
LINDBERGH: Yeah. A lot of kids, they come for the show and they think, ‘Oh fashion, fashion!’ I was interested in doing something. In creating pictures.
KUPPER: There’s a cinematic quality to your work. Fritz Lang was a big inspiration. There’s a very industrial inspiring look that goes goes against the grain of typical, glossy fashion.
LINDBERGH: I come from a place that is totally industrial and heavy industry.
KUPPER: There’s also Germanic heritage. But you also blend a lot of American influences too, like Sci-Fi and aliens. You mix these interesting worlds.
LINDBERGH: How that came up, it started in 1990. I did a story with Helena Christensen and the martian for Vogue. And then all these super models popped up in my face and I had to follow that trajectory. Then in 2000, I wanted to do more photography like that. A lot of people think my work is all about the celebrities. And they all talk about the celebrities, no? I like celebrities, but only if they have something to say. Bradley Cooper is one of the most interesting men and he is my friend, but they are not all like that.
KUPPER: There’s a closeness in your photographs, an intimacy between you and your subjects. Can you describe where that comes from? Is that something that you project?
LINDBERGH: That contact is a beautiful thing. When that is your goal, a lot of beautiful things happen. You suddenly find a new friend. It’s strange. It’s something so new.
KUPPER: So How did you come in contact with Vogue? How did that first shoot come about? I know they turned it down at first.
LINDBERGH: American Vogue did turn me down. When I came to American Vogue, the problem was they they thought I had a weird way of shooting and the editor at the time had a different aesthetic. They wanted me to shoot models that I had no relationship to. I had shot those famous pictures of the models on the beach and British Vogue picked up the story months later. When Anna Wintour came to American Vogue, everything changed and I worked with them a lot more. And that famous photo was in the 100 Years Of Vogue issue that came out four years later. They said that it was the most important photo of the decade.
KUPPER: Did you know that they would become such huge icons?
LINDBERGH: No, not at all. Because that was the easiest two days on the beach in Santa Monica and I was thinking I was in heaven because that was what I wanted to do.
KUPPER: Do you see your influence on photography today?
LINDBERGH: Not as much as people say. A lot of photographers I see and like, but I don’t think they go really do good work.
KUPPER: Who are some photographers today that you appreciate?
LINDBERGH: Bruce Weber is really good, but he is from the old school. I also really like Tim Walker.
KUPPER: Would you explain your connection to Van Gogh?
LINDBERGH: When I was in art school in Berlin, they wanted you to choose in the first two semesters to study someone in your medium for your major. He just impressed me very much. He has enormous power in his paintings and portraits.
KUPPER: And you still have a studio in Arles?
LINDBERGH: I went to Arles from Berlin hitchhiking. I went to school there. And I still go back today. I have a house there. My son got married there. It is a really important place for me.
KUPPER: One last question, What makes a photograph iconic to you?
LINDBERGH: The time. The time.