A Different Vision On Fashion Photography: An Interview Of The Legendary Photographer Peter Lindbergh

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?

LINDBERGH: Dusseldorf

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.

You can purchase Peter Lindbergh's new Taschen monograph here. A Different Vision On Fashion Photography will be on view until February 12, 2017 at Kunsthal Rotterdam in Amsterdam. Text and interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. photographs by Summer Bowie. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE

Man on Fire: An Interview with Brian Duffy

The end of the 1950s saw a drastic change in fashion photography—a kinetic, freewheeling, rule-breaking “documentary” style pioneered by three unlikely East London working-class “bad boys”—David Bailey, Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy. Perhaps the most technically sophisticated of the three, the inventive and wildly acerbic Duffy initially picked up photography “as an easy way to make money” after seeing a few contact sheets in the office of a fashion magazine he was working for as a freelance illustrator. It turned out that his instincts were correct, for him at least—Duffy soon found himself at the forefront of a rebellious, groundbreaking new photographic sensibility that would document and reinvent the image of 1960s London.  Duffy, Bailey and Donovan, who quickly became notorious throughout London press as “The Terrible Trio” or “The Black Trinity” (the latter nickname bestowed upon them by photographer Norman Parkinson) ushered in the visual spirit of the “Swinging Sixties,” meanwhile completely changing the image of the fashion photographer established by the predominantly upper-class “gentleman” photographers of the 1950s like Parkinson and Cecil Beaton. As Duffy himself once said, “Before 1960, a fashion photographer was tall, thin and camp. But we three are different: short, fat and heterosexual.” The three even inspired Michelangelo Antonioni’s first entirely English-language film, the cult hit Blow-Up, about a jaded young fashion photographer working in mod London. Irreverent, short-tempered and wholly unafraid to take risks, Brian Duffy embodied the playful dynamism and vibrancy that would come to characterize the 1960s, replacing the static, untouchable ambiance of 1950s imagery.

Throughout his incredibly successful career as one of Britain’s reigning photographers, Duffy created revolutionary spreads for Vogue, Elle, Glamour, Esquire, Queen, The Observer, The Times and The Daily Telegraph. He generated some of the most iconic images of the 1960s and 70s—from the album cover of David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane to some of the most renowned images of celebrities like Jean Shrimpton. Grace Coddington, Jane Birkin, Michael Caine, William S. Burroughs, Debbie Harry and others. Within the realm of advertising, the prolific Duffy lent his unique vision to two Pirelli calendars and shot award-winning campaigns for both Benson & Hedges and Smirnoff.

In 1979, Duffy grew tired of the business and decided to give up photography, going out in a characteristic “blaze of glory” as he spontaneously set fire to most of his negatives in the back garden of his London studio. Though a great deal of his images were lost, his son, Chris Duffy, has spent the past five years archiving those that remain—and this arduous process (which remains ongoing!) has culminated thus far in both the publication of a book of Duffy’s images and the openings of several retrospectives around the world. These exhibits showcase, for the first time ever, the oeuvre of Britain’s own enfant terrible: a visionary who created his own unique visual language, changing the face of commercial and fashion photography for good. I was lucky enough to sit down with Chris during the opening of the first-ever stateside Duffy retrospective at Clic Gallery in SoHo for a brief chat about his father’s legendary life, work and the infamous negative-burning incident…

ANNABEL GRAHAM: Your father captured and helped create the image of the “Swinging Sixties.” What about his particular method, style and personality do you think most set him apart from other photographers of the day?

CHRIS DUFFY: Ultimately… and it’s changed today, but I think photographers of the sixties had a lot of power. Clients came to them because they had a particular look and way of doing things. I mean, if you think of Helmut Newton pictures, no one else did that kind of picture, a Guy Bourdain could only be done by Gilles, and that was because photographers did have immense power, they could say how or what they wanted to do, which I don’t think really exists today. Most pictures that I look at, I mean I see hundreds of names all the time, but I couldn’t tell you one photographer from another. It all looks exactly the same. I think in part that has to do with technology, because the digital medium now has changed the game plan. I mean, in this period, in the sixties, all these pictures you look at are a fraction of time on a piece of film. The digital medium, with your recorder there, which is also a camera… if I take a picture of you, first of all, where does it exist? You can’t see it, taste it, smell it, touch it… so, I take a picture of you now, you email it to someone, they change the color of your hair on PhotoShop, they email it to someone else, and they put a background in, and then it comes back to me, where does it exist? There’s no way of knowing what the picture is, because you’ve extended the envelope of believability by digitally compositing elements. Now, traditional mechanical photography, the dynamic it deals with is a metaphysical condition, it’s about a slice of time, a moment in time. And a great picture is not a moment before that or a moment after that, it is that moment… and so it’s a very different, I think you need to differentiate between traditional-style photography and the new digital medium. So, in a roundabout way, in answer to your question about what made Duffy different, ultimately, it was a reflection of his personality. Every photographer infused and had different techniques to get people to react in certain ways or they had affections for certain styles, certain looks with cameras and lenses and techniques… it’s just a reflection of his personality.

GRAHAM: Which was?

DUFFY: Which was, well, he was a natural anarchist… he pushed himself very hard and always tried something new. I think that’s always risky, in a way, it’s much easier to be safe and keep producing the same kind of image, and people like that and you get paid for doing it, but he always wanted to kind of push it as far as he could go. He had a short fuse, he didn’t suffer fools lightly, and he was an incredible intellect; his depth of knowledge on so many subjects, from jazz to food to art to furniture to poetry… So photography was just one part of his makeup, really, I mean it was the medium that he expressed himself in.

GRAHAM: I read that he originally just picked up photography as an easy way to make money.

DUFFY: Well, yeah, originally, he started out, he went to St. Martin’s [School of Art], and he wanted to be a painter. And then what he realized in his class was that there were so many brilliant geniuses, so he went into the dressmaking department. So he had an innate understanding of fashion. Then he started illustrating and got freelance gigs for magazines like Harper’s, and it was when he was in the office of one of the magazines that he saw a set of contact sheets, and he said, “Oh, these all look the same!” and the fashion editor said, “No, no, if you look carefully they’re all different!” And then he realized at that point that that was probably much easier than sitting down drawing things. So he took up photography.

GRAHAM: And he happened to be good at it!

DUFFY: And he happened to be good at it. Well I think actually he would be good at anything he put his mind to.

GRAHAM: Yeah. It seems he was good at a lot of different things.

DUFFY: He was incredibly talented. He then went into film, into commercials, and then when he jumped out of that he’d always had a love of furniture and he was very good with his hands, at making things, he had an amazing workshop at the back of his studio, and he went into furniture restoration. I think by ’79, after working from the late fifties, he saw the writing on the wall, or what was going to happen with photography, and its demise.

GRAHAM: That was actually one of my next questions. What do you think sparked his ultimate disenchantment with the world of fashion and photography, and the burning of most of his negatives in 1979?

DUFFY: Well, I think that after being in the business that long, he felt that he wanted to go out while he was still at the top, and not just water down, you know, become a pale imitation of what he’d done before. I think he’d just had enough.

GRAHAM: He went out with a bang.

DUFFY: He did. I mean, you know, he actually burned a lot of his… well, we’re not really sure how much he burned, but there are big gaps in the archive where you look through and for example you get Job #900 and the next job will be #1008 or something, you know, there’s a big chunk missing. He just started arbitrarily burning things in the back garden on the bum fire to get rid of them. Luckily, he got stopped by the local council… we’ve got a lot of stuff, but I still keep finding things. There are archives around the world that have got pictures that I’m still uncovering. I mean, he was working every day for 25, 30 years. I worked for him from ’73 to ’79 and we just worked all the time, just continually. Nonstop.

GRAHAM: What was the experience of working for him like?

DUFFY: Well, you couldn’t have had a better apprenticeship or grounding. He was the ultimate craftsman. It was demanding, but in the end, a privileged position to be in… to fly around the world and work with a top photographer and meet incredible people and learn so much, really.

GRAHAM: This is the first-ever U.S. exhibition of Duffy’s work, right?

DUFFY: That’s correct. We had a small David Bowie exhibit last year, but this is the first solo retrospective.

GRAHAM: Now that you’ve been archiving his work since 2007, are there plans for more exhibitions in the U.S. and worldwide?

DUFFY: Well, we just got approached by a gallery in San Francisco, it’s the Modern Book Gallery, I think? So we’ll see how it goes. This year we’ve had… Gosh, I think this is about our eighth exhibition already this year. We started out at the Alinari National Photo Museum in Florence, and that’s been a major success, they extended it twice… We are in Monash Art Gallery in Melbourne, we just had the original Aladdin Sane dye transfer at the Victoria & Albert in London, we’ve got this show, we’ve got one in LA, and then we’ve got plans for Spain and Germany at the end of the year. We’ve got another UK exhibition at the Montpelier Gallery in Cheltenham at the end of the year, so it’s pretty full.

GRAHAM: Will those exhibitions show these same photographs?

DUFFY: Well, in the end, it’s up to the gallery, what they think works. For me, all of the pictures work in whatever way you want to put them together

GRAHAM: Do you have a favorite of your father’s photographs?

DUFFY: Well, there are so many pictures that I like… but one of my favorites is this portrait of William Burroughs over there, taken in 1960, with the soft machine and the typewriter, which actually William Burroughs offered to my dad for 15 francs… which he said he bought, but I haven’t found it yet. If I do, that will be an amazing feat… But he photographed him again in 1974 in London, and the portrait was Burroughs holding that picture, and it was shot for Rolling Stone, but he cut Burroughs’ head off. It’s just his body holding the picture of himself taken in 1960. It’s in the book. That’s one of my favorite pictures, because it’s just so anarchic. To take a portrait of someone, and cut their head off… I mean, if I told you I was going to take a portrait of you and cut your head off, you’d say I was mad.

Text by Annabel Graham for Pas Un Autre

Duffy: A Retrospective of Photographs by Brian Duffyis on view until June 3, 2012 at Clic Gallery, 255 Centre Street, New York.