Peter Lindbergh is having a moment of truth, although not in the existentialist way.
This story first appeared in the March 27, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
At age 70, the photographer is bombarded with assignments and special projects, not that he has ever been a loafer, but even he sounded puzzled by the recent pace. Tonight he will be at New York’s Gagosian gallery signing copies of his newest book “Images of Women II 2005-2014.” Numerous A-lister laden ad campaigns, collateral for next week’s opening of the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition in Paris, a major museum exhibition at Kunsthal Rotterdam next year, a film series about death-row inmates and an Italian Vogue shoot (“the best kind — lots of pages and nobody tells you what to do”) are all in the works.
Reached in his Paris studio, Lindbergh pretty much lives on Air France as its third-highest frequent flier. “Of the whole airline,” he booms. “I want to know who the other two are.”
Recognizable for his purist style, Lindbergh seems to be prospering during the current backlash against excessive airbrushing and Photoshopping. “For me, every picture is a portrait — no matter what I’m doing. From my very old standpoint, I think everything you do should have a meaning,” he says. “The idea [that] it doesn’t is unacceptable to me. A lot of mainstream photographers seem not to think about what they’re doing or feel any responsibility toward anything. By the time they’re done, the models don’t have any trace of themselves left. This thing about looking young with no wrinkles or expression is all so boring really.”
In the next month or so, his one-minute Lancôme films featuring Cate Blanchett, Lupita Nyong’o, Penelope Cruz and Lily Collins will be released, as well as L’Oréal ones featuring Julianne Moore, Inès de la Fressange and others. Having just shot Robert Pattinson for the new Dior Homme Parfum campaign, Charlize Theron for J’adore Dior and Michelle Williams for Louis Vuitton, Lindbergh said he doesn’t fit the designer mold, “I look more like a plumber, when you see me. Fashion is not my thing.”
That said, Lindbergh has earned his keep for decades shooting a good amount of fashion with a discerning eye. “Fashion photography should say something about the stability of a certain time you live in or what kind of women you like. The most interesting thing is not what they’re wearing but who they are. It’s important to do pictures that define women and not show some girl rummaging around in the garbage with high heels and fake boobies to show a product.
“I guess I have this image so that at least the people I photograph look the way they look. I guess that gets me a lot of work at the moment,” Lindbergh says. “These days, photographers have expensive contracts with actresses, but then the actresses have to have their names written in the column because nobody recognizes them. That’s kind of strange.”
In the book’s forward, his filmmaker friend Wim Wenders described standing recently for a good 10 minutes enthralled by a 1994 shot of Kate Moss due to its “truthfulness. I certainly don’t use the concept frivolously, and, if I stop to think about it, I hardly use it at all….In Peter Lindbergh’s portraits of women I see a search for the truth: nothing more and nothing less.”
Lindbergh offers another take: “I did a portrait of his wife, Donata, that is in the book and Wim more or less said [in the foreword], ‘I love my wife more than anything else in the world but she never looked at me like that. How does he do it?’”
Moss, along with Moore, Cara Delevingne, Jessica Stam, Sofia Coppola, Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and 75 others, are featured in the tome. Uma Thurman was so pleased that he chose a shot of her for the book’s cover that she offered to host tonight’s book signing. Lindbergh says he is so constantly in love with Robin Wright that she landed six or seven portraits in the first 20 pages alone. A Diane von Furstenberg portrait was another favorite. He says, “I just love her. I have no idea how old she is — 60 or 70? You look at this photograph and you see the fire and beauty in her eyes. Now there is this whole terror about getting old. Today that fascination with youth is overrated. What’s so special about being young? I just say that because I’m old.”
His convictions have sort of been cemented in his work. He says somewhat facetiously, “There is that 90-year-old story about how Alexander Liberman asked me, ‘Why can’t you shoot for American Vogue’ and I told him, ‘I can’t shoot the women you like to use in your magazine’” wearing what they wear.
So Lindbergh suited up Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford and a few other top-shelf models in motorcycle jackets, biker boots and miniskirts and shot them in the then-barren back streets beneath the Manhattan Bridge for creating an image known as “The Wild Ones.” “Nobody lived there,” he says of Dumbo in 1991. “There was not one single shop. I really felt like I was the first person in the world to shoot there. There were only big rats running all over the streets.”
The photographer laughed at the suggestion his insightfulness would have served him well in real estate. “Oh no, those guys are much more clever than I am,” he says.
In all seriousness, he is engrossed in filming “Testament,” a series of silent 35-minute shorts featuring death-row inmates. After reading 400 cases and learning that death-row inmates average 20 years of incarceration and are guaranteed three appeals, Lindbergh started the project, despite clashing with his “very intelligent” lawyer of 25 years. “He said, ‘How can you defend these people?’ I told him, ‘What you don’t know is they are victims, too,’” says Lindbergh, referring to the violence and abuse some experience. “He didn’t buy it from me. He thinks I will make stars out of them.”
Going rogue is something he has done since his days at Berlin’s Academy of the Arts, when he balked at a teacher’s insistence that nature-drawing classes were mandatory to becoming an artist. Instead, he hitchhiked to Arles, France, retracing the route of Vincent van Gogh to spend eight months studying the painterly light and landscape the Impressionist made his signature. In the decades since, he has owned a “little old mas from the 1770s — nothing chic, very rough,”and has helped to till the area’s artistic groundwork. More creative types will soon be flocking, thanks to his friend Maja Hoffmann, who has ponied up $131 million for a Frank Gehry-designed Arts Resource Center for her LUMA Foundation’s 20-acre site. “Arles has become this really amazing place for artists. I can imagine someday when nobody wants to work with me, I can find myself living there,” he says. “If I stand on the roof, I see nothing but nature because the house overlooks a nature conservancy. Sometimes we have to yell at the birds to shut up.”