Interview by Filep Motwary

“Changing is not difficult, it is actually fun. It is a bore to be myself everyday. When I am
home and in my life, my personality is not changing. It’s only my look and I don’t take
it seriously and to change your appearance doesn’t mean you change your personality
and your soul.”
Linda Evangelista in Models: The Film by Peter Lindbergh, 1991.

Peter Lindbergh has been a photographer for more than 40 years. It is hard to find the right words to describe his vast body of work and singular vision—an approach based on simplicity and the truth embodied in each of his images. Rising above changes in the fashion industry, his work remains as pertinent as ever. An emotional boldness is echoed in the models’ faces, their surroundings and the clothes they wear.

From September 2016 to February 2017, Kunsthal Rotterdam, in collaboration with guest curator Thierry-Maxime Loriot, gives access to the photographer’s archives with Peter Lindbergh: A Different History of Fashion Photography, an exhibition featuring over 200 of his most iconic images, along with original pieces by 25 renowned fashion designers from different eras and previously unseen additional material, including personal notes, contact sheets and films. Dapper Dan spoke to Lindbergh just after he finished working on the latest Pirelli Calendar.

FILEP MOTWARY: What I’ve always found striking, in addition to your photography itself, is your “way” with women, your “subjects”. By looking at your work, one feels there is a bond, a deep relationship, a mutual understanding and trust between you and the women you photograph. How did you achieve having all these iconic women liberate themselves in front of your camera in such a way that it seems as if an intruder is somehow witnessing someone else’s personal moment?

PETER LINDBERGH: I would try to define it as the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. This exactly seems to be the most important gift you need, to come to a “symbiotic relationship” with your subjects. It creates amazing moments and a feeling that everything can happen at any moment. It is something very beautiful and, by the way, very useful… I do not make a difference between an actor or a model when I shoot—I love storytelling, narrative stories, and it is about showing something real, situations where I leave some space for improvisation. I give the guidelines—suggest— and then they have to pretend I am just not there photographing them.

FM: They seem like stills from a very personal narrative of a fashion film. How difficult was it to develop this approach to a personal perspective and maintain it as your signature for so many years?

PL: I think it is a parallel process of trying to find out what you want to express or communicate. Over the years, you start knowing more and more who you are and where you want to go. This is the basis for every manifestation, whether as photographer, artist, musician or any creative person with something to say. Once you have found yourself in these complex, but at the same time natural and instinctive surroundings, you’ll automatically feel your way to photograph women, or anything else. That’s why it is important to listen only to yourself, for any decisions concerning the meaning and visual direction of your work. I don’t think the way I see women has changed a lot. What has changed is my way of approaching the making of images and if they are more interesting today than 25 years ago, I would guess this is because all fear has left and I can clearly see the bottom of everything. If you are consistent and have a clear point of view, if you believe and stay true to yourself, from who you are to your style, you can succeed.

FM: It is remarkable how photographs you took 30 years ago, with the fashions of that time, still seem so current. How would you explain that?

PL: There is one simple sentence from the Japanese Zen master, Shunryu Suzuki: “To express yourself as you are, without any intentional fancy way of adjusting yourself, is the most important thing.” I think following Shunryu’s thinking would be the most revolutionary and useful act, concerning photography and everything else.

FM: What is your definition of beauty?

PL: Since the arrival of the digital processing of images, a lot has changed. Especially as new tools, like Photoshop, are too often used in a destructive way, as too much control is given to digital retouchers. This has a very sad, dehumanising effect. You can see everyday, everywhere that this has become automatic: retouching has kidnapped the life from the faces of women and cleared them from past experiences and emotions. The image of women in our time has become an insult for every person who loves and respects them. Real beauty, wisdom, sensibility, love or intelligence in someone’s face has been branded with the supposedly most negative word of our time: old! The strong market of eternal youth has taken control over our awareness of beauty. When you can sign on to the idea that there cannot be beauty without truth, the answer is clear. How crazy and unreal is the idea of erasing all your experiences from your face? You should also know why you want to leave them. This should be the responsibility of photographers today: to free women, and finally everyone, from the terror of youth and perfection.

FM: Gianni Versace was responsible for coining the term “top model”, but you are responsible for making that term a reality through your photographs, starting with the legendary British Vogue cover in January 1990. You still collaborate with most of these women more than 25 years later. What was—and is—so special about Linda, Tatjana, Naomi, Christy, Stephanie, Cindy, Helena and Claudia?

PL: At the end of the 1980s, the supermodels represented for me a change from the other women in the fashion magazines. They had very different personalities and they were different to models from before. They were independent, could speak for themselves and were not in need of masculine protection and were not living and exposing their social status to exist. It was about independence, authenticity and diversity. This led to the “White Shirts” images shot in California in 1988, which was the first time they had been put together as the group later referred to as the supermodels. I had refused to work for American Vogue several times because I could not relate to the women they were showing in their pages.

Mr Liberman from Condé Nast asked me to show him what my type of woman was. I did images of relatively new models as a group, all in white shirts. Vogue did not say much and refused the pictures. Ironically, the picture ended up four years later in the book celebrating the 100-year anniversary of Vogue as the most important picture of the decade. Using black-and-white photography was really important to create the supermodels. Every time I tried to shoot them in colour, it ended up looking like a cosmetics advert. With black and white, you could really see more of who they were. It toned down the commercial interpretation that colour gives.

FM: The 90s were a period of fashion excess and yet you managed to keep these women real. How difficult was it to reconcile that with the needs of the fashion publications you were collaborating with?

PL: I do not have a problem being considered as a fashion photographer but I do not approach photography from a fashion point of view—far from it. My inspiration comes from other places—I consider many things as interesting and as inspiration for me.

FM: You made Models: The Film in 1991. What was the story behind it?

PL: It was a great experience, a learning experience, as it was a first for me. I have good memories of it because it is a documentary, probably the only one, about these girls at that moment. It was done more artistically with a lot of freedom and I didn’t have to follow any professional rules for documentaries. It is a witness testimony of that time.

FM: Did you film on fashion shoots?

PL: The film was the only goal, but we had re-used the idea of an earlier story for Italian Vogue with Linda, Naomi and Christy Turlington as gangsters in Brooklyn.

FM: One of my favourite scenes in the film is when Linda and Tatjana are sharing a table on the beach, talking. It seems to be a break they had between shots. I find this conversational scene very powerful and representative of your body of work: the conversation between women, both literally and metaphorically.

PL: I like to give freedom to the people I capture to let them express themselves in the way they want. The results are always very interesting and unexpected and I think this is how magic works in a way to capture moments.

FM: What is your creative process? From the moment you are commissioned for a story, what is the next step?

PL: I do not have one special routine. I strongly believe in human relations and dialogue—they are probably the most important tools for the work I do. It is about creating a relation, an intimacy to capture something others or even the subjects have not seen of themselves yet. The idea is to capture moments: moments of intimacy, moments of happiness and moments of truth people can relate to. I think it is nice to put images in context.

FM: If I asked you to describe the current state of fashion, what would you say has changed?

PL: You’re asking the wrong person… All I can say is that now it is obviously more global and instantly accessible all over the world because of social media. Maybe it is less about creativity, more about commerce, about selling bags and cosmetics rather than individuality.

FM: In your exhibition, Peter Lindbergh: A Different History of Fashion Photography, you present some of your most iconic images through 25 fashion designers from different eras. What makes a fashion designer special to you? What qualities make a fashion designer special to you?

PL: Their boundless creativity, for which I have a lot of respect. When I first met Rei Kawakubo when she arrived in Paris, I was totally impressed by her unique vision and her freedom in creating her garments, mixing tradition and avant-garde.

FM: This exhibition seems to be one of your biggest and most personal shows to date. Why now?

PL: I cannot say it is my biggest or my most personal but it definitely is very different from the previous ones. Today I should not work as much as I do because I always thought that now, at this stage of my life, I should have some time to reflect and to find out more about everything I have seen and experienced. But then, thinking only about photography there is not much left to do… But let’s talk about the exhibition! Thierry didn’t think of the exhibition like a retrospective. We worked together for almost three years on it, researching images. The photographs aren’t presented chronologically but, as he calls it, through my passions and obsessions of the past decades… The Kunsthal in Rotterdam is a very sophisticated museum of modern art. I’ve been told that I am, if not the first one, one of the first artists with a solo exhibition there while still alive. In this context, the less fortunate artists were Pablo Picasso, Giacometti and Keith Haring, among many others. Thierry came to me with this idea of showing my work in a different way—a way that I myself had never thought of before. It was quite interesting for me to see images I shot recently and many years ago, all together, from a very different perspective. It is easy to do a photography exhibition and to just hang them on the wall, but the way it is presented it is not only about me—you discover other, different universes, about dance, about arts in Germany, about cinema, about social issues, beauty…

FM: Can you tell me more about how the exhibition has been curated?

PL: It is divided into themes, from supermodels to sets, dance and icons (cinema, music, etc.), fashion designers to The Unknown, a special video installation with all the works inspired by aliens, spaceships and the unknown… The gallery about the supermodels is constructed in a way that visitors understand what was going on socially at the end of the 80s, why it happened and how the role of women in society was evolving to something that was about individuality, empowerment. Also how I came and worked in that period of fashion excess and over grooming, with an approach that was very different to what everyone else was doing back then. Many of my passions and inspirations, like modern dance and ballet—from Nijinski, to Martha Graham and my dear friend, the late Pina Bausch—are explored.

I guess it can be interesting for someone who does not know about that universe to discover these great late artists and learn about creativity and artistic exchanges. There is also a gallery called Zeitgeist, about social issues, in which you see how, in photography, you can have discussions with images, with taboos, whether it is androgyny, my play on masculinity and femininity, genders but also—something very actual and necessary these days—the culture of youth and perfection and the excessive use of retouching.

There is also a darkroom that will be recreated, so the young generation who think photography is mainly done with cell phones will discover how it used to be done, with cameras, films, contact sheets, negatives, real darkroom elements…

FM: The exhibition also presents a selection of iconic haute couture garments along with your photographs. Why this marriage?

PL: Museum exhibitions are a great way to give visitors access to what is inaccessible. To see an image in a magazine or on the Internet, everybody can do that, but to see an actual photographic print, it is not something you encounter often. It’s the same with Polaroids, contact sheets and the other material that will be exhibited. The garments are only in one section of the exhibition—they are another way to see the works photographed, a 3D element in 2D, and to then discover the beauty of them.

FM: Speaking of haute couture, how has it maintained its principles—if indeed it has—throughout all all the years that you have been photographing it?

PL: I am not a fashion specialist, but what is fascinating about haute couture is the craftsmanship and the number of hours spent to create real works of art… It evolved into something else, more modern, with the arrival of McQueen and Galliano.

FM: You participated in both my exhibition and book, Haute-à-Porter, at the Modemuseum of Hasselt. My subject considered the relationship between custom and ready-to-wear clothing. Where do the two meet?

PL: I do not think haute couture will ever meet prêt-à-porter as they are two different things. Some do elaborate work in ready-to-wear, but now with everything on the Internet they must reinvent a way not to be copied, so they make it more complicated to execute, I guess.

FM: Why do humans feel the need to always redefine themselves through garments, make-up, plastic surgery…?

PL: Because they do not accept who they are and what they become, as simple as that. They think they will look better by using these artificial tools and forget that what is important is who they are, not what they look like.

FM: What is the biggest lie in fashion?

PL: You tell me! Otherwise, now the biggest lie is called Photoshop.

The conversation between Peter Lindbergh and Filep Motwary appeared in Dapper Dan Magazine issue #14, Fall 2016

Special thanks to Thierry-Maxime Loriot,
Benjamin Lindbergh and Thoai Niradeth.


Considered a pioneer in photography, Peter Lindbergh introduced a form of new realism by redefining the standards of beauty with timeless images. His humanist approach and idealisation of women sets him apart from the other photographers as he privileges the soul and the personality. He changed drastically the standards of the fashion photography in times of excessive retouching considering that there is something else that makes a person interesting, beyond their age. He explains : « This should be the responsibility of photographers today to free women, and finally everyone, from the terror of youth and perfection. » His singular vision, presents them in their pure state, « in all honesty », avoiding all stereotypes as he privileges a face with hardly any make-up, in a baring that enhances the authenticity and the natural beauty of his women. Lindbergh is the first photographer to include a narrative in his fashion series, his storytelling brought a new vision of art and fashion photography. Over the years, he has created images that marked the history of photography, characterised by a minimalist approach of the post-modernist photography. Back in 1988, Lindbergh garnered international acclaim by showing a new generation of models all dressed in white shirts that he had recently discovered and launched their careers. A year later, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington and Tatjana Patitz, young models then, were photographed together for the first time by him for the legendary January 1990 Vogue UK cover.

Lindbergh has directed a number of critically acclaimed films and documentaries: Models, The FIlm (1991); Inner VoIces (1999) which won the Best Documentary Prize at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in 2000; Pina Bausch, der Fensterputzer (2001) and Everywhere At Once (2007), which was narrated by Jeanne Moreau and presented at the Cannes and Tribeca Film Festivals. Lindbergh is represented by Gagosian Gallery. He currently lives between Paris, Arles and New York.