Peter Lindbergh
Photo by Gisela Schober

Peter Lindbergh: “Beauty has nothing to do with youth”

Short Profile

Name: Peter Brodbeck Lindbergh
DOB: 23 November 1944 (d. 3 September 2019)
Place of birth: Leszno, Poland
Occupation: Photographer

This interview was recorded earlier this year before Mr. Lindbergh's tragic passing in September 2019.

Mr. Lindbergh, has your perception of beauty changed over the years?

Yes, I would say so. A woman I thought of as beautiful 30 years ago is still beautiful to me now when I look at pictures of her. And even back then, it did nothing for me when someone plastered their face with make-up. If someone comes into the studio like that, they can wash it all off right away, to show the person underneath it all.

So what’s different?

Let me put it this way: I have learned over the years, that beauty has nothing to do with youth. Not that I only photographed young girls back then, but today much more than I did back then, I can appreciate how magnificently beautiful Charlotte Rampling can look at over 70 years of age. No teenager can compete with that, especially since Charlotte has never had any work done cosmetically. To have a real human being in front of you, who carries their whole life in their face is amazing. And rare.

“The face is meant to express something, that’s what it’s there for; it’s basically witness of a situation or an emotion.”

Charlotte Rampling said that she doesn’t want to tamper with time: “As an actor, if you will allow yourself that luxury to be old, you’ll find that the rewards are extraordinary.”

Right, I think it’s really tragic to mess about with one’s face. When you do portrait photography it really can be quite insane. It’s crazy what is possible today. Photoshop is a huge tragedy in that respect as well, no question!

But in this industry, it’s pretty unavoidable, isn’t it?

If I work in advertisement, it is definitely not avoidable — especially when it’s about make-up, there is really no way around it. Unless of course, you really resist to the point of refusing the money and end up driving an old Fiat500 for the rest of your life. I don’t go that far! But you can certainly advise the client that retouching afterwards isn’t the greatest idea and offer alternatives instead. There is some development in that direction. Not enough yet, but at least they no longer erase everything from a face. It is meant to express something, that’s what it’s there for; it’s basically witness of a situation or an emotion. I think it’s dangerous, especially with actors, when the expressiveness of the face diminishes.

Does it pose more of a challenge for you to photograph an actor than a professional model?

It’s tricky because models are meant to work in front of a camera. They look at the camera, turn towards you. Actors on the other hand are trained to forget about the camera, and that makes a huge difference for my work. Even for someone like Nicole Kidman, it’s a real challenge not to be able to hide behind a role. Even if you’re photographing a diva, the secret is simply not to get angry or make a fuss.

Have you always had this kind of composure?

I think a certain composure is really important for my work. For example, if someone looks left and the sun shines directly into their face — which looks horrendous in a photo — I just continue shooting calmly until that person says themselves, “That’s not a good light, is it?” “I’ll sort it,” is my usual response. That way you train people to notice these things themselves instead of being remote-controlled dolls. There is nothing worse at a shoot than a photographer who’s constantly yelling things like: “Baby, the arm a little higher,” and “Now look to the left.” All you do is create robots like that.

Your photography helped bring about a change how women are perceived in the fashion and advertising industry. How consciously had you been pushing that new ideal back then?

In principle, it was always about photography for me, not politics. The image of women that was dominant back then just did nothing for me. These proxy-women, protected and paraded by some men, simple clothing racks… Terrible. I’m interested in women who speak for themselves, who radiate autonomy. Just like the girls I studied with at the art academy back then, who of course did not wear Dior gowns — but T-shirts.

And so you photographed your models in simple white shirts…

First, I told my clients that I could not work for them because I could not photograph women in this old, traditional style. And when I showed them my alternative images of women, they threw the photos out. But then I did actually find a place for my models in white shirts! And their success shows how seemingly overdue this change in perception really was. It was insane really, within three months, these pictures and these models were everywhere and everything else was pretty much done with for 10 years. It was like everybody had just been waiting for this.

“The revolution came to an end fairly quickly when the industry discovered these models for itself. The commercial world that they had broken free from had conquered them back.”

But it all only lasted a little more than a decade.

First, it all went right to the top. It became a trend that everyone seemed to follow. After my picture, it was the George Michael video, then Versace hired these models and all of a sudden, Linda Evangelista could claim that she would not get out of bed for less than 10,000 dollars. And it was like that, regardless of what she is saying today. If she was on the cover of some magazine, they sold up to 25% more copies. But the revolution came to an end fairly quickly when the industry discovered these models for itself. The commercial world that they had broken free from had conquered them back. And of course, the next revolution in photography was just waiting to happen.

Are you talking about photographers like Jürgen Teller?

Exactly, and all the British photographers that came up towards the end of the 1990s. They brutalised girls: they photographed the same girls, only they had scars painted on them and so on. I didn’t really like it, it was too made up for me. With us, it was about a more authentic philosophy. Anyway, the boom around the supermodels ended up fading away eventually, even if Cindy and Naomi are still about.

Who would you say profited more from the era of the supermodel: Cindy and Naomi, or you?

I would say the supermodels profited from me. Around 1990 I had just started to try and introduce narrative stories into my work with a photo series of Helena Christensen and these Martians. But that finished again right away because with the supermodels, they were a revolution in themselves, they didn’t need any more story than that. It wasn’t until their time slowly came to an end in 2000 that I finally started to do stuff like my Mars invasion stories. That was a time when you really had to try hard to take pictures. Finally, you could be a photographer again!