Peter Lindbergh talks to us about photographing the works of sculptor Alberto Giacometti

by Aïsha Diomandé, June 2017 (United Kingdom)

When legendary photographer Peter Lindbergh was invited to photograph the world’s largest and most important collection of work by artist Alberto Giacometti, he jumped at the chance to train his lens on one of his idols. The resulting photography series is currently being shown at London’s Gagosian gallery alongside Giacometti’s corresponding sculptures, revealing an energised and fresh perspective towards one of the artistic titans of the 20th century. Throughout his illustrious career, Giacometti was fascinated by the complexities of evoking humanity within art, as he continually sought to reach the essence of being. This innovative style captured the imagination of his contemporary and friend, Jean-Paul Sartre, who observed that the artist’s striking elongated sculptures were “always mediating between nothingness and being.” In light of Giacometti’s inventive experiments with form, Lindbergh has turned his lens towards the iconic sculptures, creating striking images that mirror Giacometti’s strategic simplicity, equally achieving his raw expression. Interestingly, Lindbergh’s dramatic interplays between light and perspective captures the austere mood and rough texture of Giacometti’s sculptures. By capturing the personality of the subject, Lindbergh avoids stiff artificiality – instead, he enhances its uniqueness and beauty. AÏSHA DIOMANDÉ: INITIALLY, WHAT I FOUND TO BE INTRIGUING WAS THE TITLE OF THE EXHIBITION, SUBSTANCE AND SHADOW. AT FIRST IT SEEMS CONTRADICTORY TO MERGE SOLIDITY WITH EPHEMERALITY—HOW DO YOU THINK THIS TENSION IS REFLECTED IN GIACOMETTI’S WORK AND YOUR SUBSEQUENT PHOTOGRAPHIC INTERPRETATIONS? Peter Lindbergh: I think that the title came after the pictures were taken, and it’s true that solidity of the bronze suddenly disappears in the photograph because of all the shadows and light. I love the title, although it was not my idea. I feel that Giacometti put his whole life into making the sculptures after the [Second World] War, the things that we know today, world events after 1944 – there is so much content in this. So in the end that was a beautiful title that really represented the idea. WHY DID YOU WANT TO GET INVOLVED WITH THIS PROJECT? AND IN PARTICULAR, WHAT DREW YOU TOWARDS GIACOMETTI’S WORK? If you have somebody that doesn’t inspire you it’s very difficult to take a picture of them, it’s almost impossible. Yet with Giacometti it is very exciting to be inspired. However, it was not my idea to photograph Giacometti’s work. A magazine said, “We would like you to have an encounter with Giacometti and you, and we have permission to shoot in Zurich in a museum, which has the biggest collection of Giacometti’s work.” I’ve always loved Giacometti even before I knew his work properly. Now I love him ten times more, he’s really amazing. So, I said yes and I went there and I saw all this work of his and it was so exciting, there was a lot of feeling when you went in the room. It was like an atelier, and it had nice daylight – we looked at twenty sculptures on one table in a corner, and you could take the figures and manipulate them around, it ~~was unbelievable.~~ It felt like I was touching something precious. >“It’s so personal that it is very close to a real human being. When you put the figures in a big white room, they start to become bigger and they become beautiful, when I went in there, I was flabbergasted to see how those little figurines take up so much space.” HOW DID YOU LOOK TO REPRESENT GIACOMETTI AND HIS WORK? The exhibition was designed by Edouard and Benjamin, it’s so beautiful, the way they represented the whole idea of this space, and of the sculptures, very human-like, giving them space to breathe, and they need it because when you see the way Giacometti works, particularly in the old films — they are amazing. You see him working on the texture of the sculpture. You know, he struggled a lot – he did a lot of different things, really before the War, he was very much ‘one of them’ [in reference to the Surrealists], doing nothing particularly incredible. Then after the war there was something, he found the ‘inside’ of himself. I think that he found his message inside himself, and the figures became thinner and thinner, becoming what we know Giacometti to be today. It’s so personal that is very close to a real human being. When you put the figures in a big white room, they start to become bigger and they become beautiful, when I went in there, I was flabbergasted those little figurines take up so much space. It shows that they have a soul, they are not just objects, they have the soul of the man and that is very inspiring and exciting. >"Creativity is a space within you, you can call it a reservoir, and that reservoir has got to be filled with everything you feel, see, think – every emotion, everything involved in there." RAWNESS AND AUTHENTICITY ARE ADJECTIVES THAT I WOULD ASSOCIATE WITH YOUR APPROACH ALONGSIDE WITH GIACOMETTI’S, IN A WORLD FIXATED WITH MATERIAL, VISUAL AND INTELLECTUAL PERFECTION, HOW DO YOU OVERCOME THESE OBSTACLES? You’re lucky if you have to have access to all these layers inside. I had a workshop in America last week and I had a four-day masterclass. It was so interesting to talk with them. The title of the workshop was ‘The Role of Creativity’, and it was so exciting. I had to formulate the idea of what creativity is – I was so excited to paint that picture in front of them. Creativity is a space within you, you can call it a reservoir, and that reservoir has got to be filled with everything you feel, see, think – every emotion, everything involved in there. That is the basic material that you need, and you can work from there. Most people have no access to that place, and if they do have access, this is what makes a genius, because they do something totally original with their own reservoir. That is what we see in Giacometti too; he worked, worked and worked. He knew exactly what he wanted to do, but he didn’t get there. Everyone said, “Oh, that is really beautiful,’ but he would say, “That is terrible! That is far from what I wanted to do!” WHAT IS THE IMPORTANCE OF NARRATIVE WITHIN THIS CREATIVE PROJECT? AND ON A WIDER SCALE, HOW DO YOU GIVE MEANING TO YOUR CREATIVE ENDEAVOURS? I work a lot with narrative, a narrative for Italian ~~Vogue takes~~ up around thirty pages, and without a narrative, it would be an empty gesture. I started with storytelling in 1990, and that was a story with Helena Christensen, I found her and I asked her not to work with anyone else for four months, she was totally new, and that had an amazing impact. The shoot was a story about a Martian in the desert, and so Helena drives and finds a Martian and falls in love with him and at the end he gets called back to his planet – it was a real love story, and we could have done a hundred pages and that was beautiful. In terms of my project with Giacometti, there is not a narrative exactly, it is more about the point of view of the pictures, and when you look closer to the head [referring to Giacometti’s Buste de Diego, 1964-1965], the head [through the lens] becomes totally different and magical, and to play around with his soul that he has put into everything, and trying to find what that could have been. There is no real narrative to build up, it is not a story I put together, it is something that somebody did, and I add my point of view to that. And so the narrative is more of Giacometti and I hope that you can find his love for his work in my photographs. And that is the narrative that I try to make come alive, recognising the way that he worked.