Peter Lindbergh and women

by Caterina Porcellini & Nicola Davide Angerame, November 2017 (Italy)

If fashion promotes a dream rather than a product, fashion photography as conceived by Peter Lindbergh (born in Lissa, 1944) has expressed its ultimate utopia: being a dream woman, without necessarily having put on any outfit. It was with a series of photos in particular that Lindbergh marked a turning point on the international scene: photos that we find at the start of the exhibition currently on show in the Sale delle Arti of Venaria Palace. We refer to a photo shoot performed in 1988 for Vogue America (which did not appreciate it), in which six models all wear white shirts. Only one piece of clothing, not even exquisitely feminine, against the backdrop of a Malibu beach. >The exhibition focuses entirely on the photographer's non-conformism in his approach to the genre, instead of perfection. Two years later, Lindbergh baptised the aesthetics of the Nineties and of supermodels, taking, among others, the very young Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista and Cindy Crawford into downtown New York, where the readers of Vogue would never have adventured to go. The photographer thereby deprived the fashion world of its most powerful weapon of seduction, the status symbol, suggesting that beauty has to do with personality, and that clothing is the expression of personality. AUTHENTICITY AND ARTIFICE The exhibition conceived by the Kunsthal of Rotterdam, with the curator Thierry-Maxime Loriot and Peter Lindbergh himself, focuses entirely on the photographer's non-conformism in his approach to the genre: instead of perfection (achieved by photo retouching), Lindbergh emphasizes the subject's character. It is hard to agree entirely with the critical interpretation proposed, when there is talk of “truth” for photography which remains inevitably tied to a precise value system, conveying a message that is not even too enigmatic. Because, here, any “deviant” attitude must nevertheless be assimilated in a universe where beauty (if you allow it to) triumphs over all the evils of society. Even the “sayings” of Jenny Holzer, although they introduce protest and rebellion against the system, remain “stage elements” lent to the compelling figure of Milla Jovovich for the New Age of Couture photo shoot published in the Italian Vogue in 2012. The purpose of this is not to belittle the revolutionary nature of Lindbergh's poetry; on the contrary it is meant to highlight its greatest merit: the courageous assertion of a self that is not “true”, but is the authentic self. From the subject, Lindbergh chooses the best of the self-portrayals, freeing it of any accidental limitations, including those of gender. As the transsexual Agrado remarks in Pedro Almodóvar's "All About My Mother": “It costs a lot to be authentic, […] because you are more authentic the more you resemble what you've dreamed you are”. THE WORK BEHIND THE SCENES The construction of this fascinating collective dream is precisely one of the aspects regarding which the exhibition is most exhaustive, bringing to the Venaria Reale extensive documentation consisting of contact prints and Polaroids, storyboards and original notes. THE "WHAT IF" AESTHETIC IS THE BASIS OF THIS FASHION PHOTOGRAPHY, DESIGNED BY LINDBERGH AROUND ELEMENTS OF REALITY WHICH ARE, HOWEVER, ORGANIZED IN AN ALTERNATIVE STORY, IN WHICH WE ALL WANT TO LIVE. The boundary between authenticity and artifice is actually so well done that some of the installations passed through by the public manage to inform them of everything happening backstage ‒ the darkroom, the archives of the photographic studio, even though they are obvious reconstitutions. The "what if" aesthetic is the basis of this fashion photography, designed by Lindbergh around elements of reality which are, however, organized in an alternative story, in which we all want to live. A mechanism which brings the photographer close to the cinema, and especially dance, with the fundamental ambition of making the body – the most real of all elements – achieve new, unexpected goals. And it's no coincidence that, precisely, the section of the exhibition dedicated to so many dancers and choreographers portrayed by Lindbergh – from Pina Bausch to Madonna, student of Merce Cunningham – is perhaps the most powerful of the whole exhibition. Although he is one of the best-paid fashion photographers, he has never considered himself merely a fashion photographer. At age 73 he finally feels free: to create, to change ideas and (why not?) to make mistakes. At the end of the eighties his naturalism overturned the canons of fashion, giving models a face and personality and celebrating beauty as freedom. >"At a time when Photoshop makes it possible to wipe out years and smooth faces, the idea of showing the truth of time passing over everyone seems to us ever more scandalous." AFTER SO MUCH WORK, HERE IS YOUR MAJOR RETROSPECTIVE, CONVEYING A CERTAIN IDEA OF FASHION. In principle I was sceptical, in life I have endeavoured to be a fashion photographer as little as possible, but I did not succeed very well. THE FIRST SECTION OF THE EXHIBITION IS ENTITLED SUPER MODEL, WITH YOUR GIRLS: FROM NAOMI TO CLAUDIA, FROM CINDY TO SILVIA AND ON TO KATE. NOW THEIR FIRST NAME SUFFICES, THEY ARE AS FAMOUS AS POP STARS. I worked at a time in history when models' beauty and personality suddenly came to the forefront, but my work has always been related to social change and a certain idea of femininity. YOU ARE THE POET OF AUTHENTICITY, VIRTUALLY MORE OF AN ARCHITECTURE PHOTOGRAPHER LIKE GABRIELE BASILICO OR THE BECHER COUPLE, RATHER THAN A FASHION PHOTOGRAPHER. YOU HAVE SUCCEEDED IN PORTRAYING THE MOST BEAUTIFUL OLDER WOMEN AS THEY ARE, WITHOUT MAKEUP, A COLLECTION OF SCULPTURAL, ARCHITECTURAL FACES. At a time when Photoshop makes it possible to wipe out years and smooth faces, the idea of showing the truth of time passing over everyone seems to us ever more scandalous. BUT YOU MADE IT THE DISTINCTIVE TRAIT OF A STYLE, FAITHFUL TO THE RIGOUR OF BLACK-AND-WHITE. It arose from a different vision, influenced by the German expressionist cinema of the Thirties and the black-and-white photography of the Great Depression years in America. IS IT A SENSE OF RESPONSIBILITY WHICH MAKES YOU AND YOUR COLLEAGUES ENGAGED? When I take photographs I never do it in a vacuum, whenever we shoot a photo we create a dimension. WHAT IS YOUR RELATION WITH AGE AND THE PASSING OF TIME? An exhibition like this can make you feel very old, and that is exactly how I feel, but I'm alright. WHY? As you grow older you become less anxious and angry, and if you make a mistake you recognize it more quickly, you apologize and if you want to change ideas you do so freely. WHAT DO YOU THINK OF PRESENT-DAY FASHION PHOTOGRAPHY? I have a very critical view of what the mass media and the fashion world are doing to the image of woman. IN 1988, WHEN YOU BEGAN, YOUR STYLE WAS NOT ADMIRED. I had to explain it, and try to make myself understood. The manager of Vogue America at that time, Alexander Liberman, called me and asked me to photograph a model according to the style of covers at that time. A lot of makeup and not much naturalness. I told him: I can't do it this way. I didn't have the inspiration, and the social context to which those covers referred was not mine. THIS LED TO THE MOST ICONIC PHOTO OF YOUR CAREER, WHICH LAUNCHED SIX OF THE TOP MODELS WHO WOULD THEN CHANGE THE HISTORY OF FASHION PHOTOGRAPHY, PUTTING TO FLIGHT THE ANONYMOUS MODELS AND BECOMING REAL STARS OF THE CATWALKS AND PUBLIC CELEBRITIES. When you photograph you must be as true as possible, you must be engaged. So I chose the models and flew to Los Angeles to shoot photos of them on the beach. They were dressed in white shirts; that was my definition of woman: simple and free. A GROUP PHOTO LIKE SO MANY YOU WOULD DO DURING YOUR CAREER. SMILING BEAUTIES HAVING FUN, TRANSMITTING A SENSE OF CAMARADERIE, THE GROUP: A NOT VERY INDIVIDUALISTIC BUT RATHER A COMMUNAL VISION, VERY GERMAN. When I studied at art school in Berlin I was struck by the courage with which the young female students sought out their own path, wanting to achieve their dream of becoming artists. I like a woman who is not afraid of working hard to achieve what she wants. SHE IS AN EMANCIPATED WOMAN. But also a candid one. They practically all came from Scandinavia and were not at all interested in how they themselves dressed. I began to admire this type of woman and have never ceased to do so. IT'S A QUESTION THAT IS ALWAYS ASKED, BUT WHAT IS BEAUTY FOR LINDBERGH TODAY? I have thought about it a lot. It is everything that gives you the courage to be yourself, at all times, nothing more.