Peter Lindbergh And The Birth Of The Supermodel
by Osman Ahmed, September 2019 (United Kingdom)
AS THE INDUSTRY MOURNS HIS LOSS, VOGUE REFLECTS ON THE PIVOTAL ROLE PETER LINDBERGH PLAYED IN THE SUPERMODEL PHENOMENON
Picture the most famous supermodels of the 1990s, and you will probably be thinking of a Peter Lindbergh photograph. The German photographer sparked the phenomenon with a shot in American Vogue, August 1988, of a group of rising models, in white shirts on the beach. Then, in January 1990, came his British Vogue cover, featuring a black-and-white tableau of the original single-moniker models: Linda, Naomi, Cindy, Tatjana and Christy. George Michael saw it and cast each of them in his Freedom! ‘90 music video, which in turn inspired Gianni Versace to send them down the catwalk lip-syncing to that very song.
For as long as the supermodels reigned, and as they evolved with new generations, Lindbergh was there photographing them. And while he was responsible for shaping their careers, perhaps the most striking thing about his photography was its intimacy. Famously unretouched and naturally lit, his images of the most glamorous A-list were often stripped-back, cinematic portraits of unfiltered beauty. John Galliano once said that Peter Lindbergh’s subjects were silent movie stars, with the clothes as the script and Lindbergh as director. His images have the power to be simultaneously timeless and timely, soulful and never contrived – see the supers dressed in Chanel leather, straddling motorbikes in Brooklyn, New York (for American Vogue, September 1991).
In person, Lindbergh was warm, ruggedly handsome and always casually dressed – spectacles at the end of his nose, worn-in jeans and a baseball cap with the slogan, ‘Peter’. It’s this relaxed approach that set the tone for his work, too. “When I first worked with Peter, I thought gosh, he really wants to see me,” German model Nadja Auermann told Vogue. “I had to learn it. It’s really great to understand that. He liked me to look natural and the way I look as a human being. Other photographers will say, ‘I want you to show laughter – but don’t actually laugh’. Peter would always make you smile and make you feel like you didn’t care if you did a weird face.”
>British Vogue’s first cover of the '90s remains one of the most genuinely iconic both for the magazine and its photographer.
Inspiring George Michael’s casting of Naomi, Linda, Tatjana, Christy and Cindy in his equally landmark music video for "Freedom! ’90", the circle of pop culture folklore was made complete as four of the supermodels prowled down Gianni Versace’s autumn/winter 1991 catwalk lip-synching to the song and committing to all involved to fashion’s highest echelon of fame.
In the mid-1980s, Lindbergh explained to Alexander Liberman, the legendary editorial director of Condé Nast, that he simply couldn’t relate to the images of over-styled women that Vogue featured. “I couldn’t stand the kind of woman who was featured in the magazine, supported by the rich husband,” he told me a few years ago. When Liberman asked him to produce a photo of the kind of woman he wanted to portray, Lindbergh went to the beach in Santa Monica with Linda Evangelista, Karen Alexander, Christy Turlington, Estelle Lefébure, Tatjana Patitz and Rachel Williams. Dressed in oversized white shirts, the result was the antithesis of the formal composition of fashion photography and its strictly regimented codes, which at the time meant headshots of heavily made-up models. Instead, Lindbergh showed these barely known models, unpretentious and giggling together, in a moment of sheer joy and authenticity that transcended cosmetics, retouching and extravagant fashion.
The pictures were initially rejected by Liberman and Grace Mirabella, the editor of American Vogue at the time. Shortly after, however, Anna Wintour arrived at the magazine and upon finding the photos in a drawer in the art department, she called Lindbergh in. Wintour commissioned Lindbergh to shoot the cover of her debut issue in November 1988, featuring Israeli model Michaela Bercu in a cropped bejewelled Christian Lacroix jumper and stonewashed jeans, smiling with her eyes half-closed, head turning away from the camera. At the time it was a revelation, signalling a move towards an uninhibited, pluralistic representation of beauty.
Lindbergh credited the success of his collaborations to the fact that he predominantly shot on film, and had much more time to cultivate real relationships without the pressure of social media or digital monitors. “When you use a normal camera, you shoot and you’re alone with your subject and it creates intimacy,” he once told me. “It doesn’t finish in two minutes, because you don’t know if it’s great, so you have to do even more. Then you have a lot of pictures.” He added, when “it’s a bit out of focus, it’s nicer.”
Lindbergh continued: “The crime is that photographers are pushed to shoot with a cable attached to the camera and there is a screen in the middle of the studio and everyone is looking at it. The relationship with the models is killed. The editors will say, ‘Peter you got it, it’s great!’ or ‘Move the hand to the left a little’ and that’s nothing to do with photography. Photography becomes a button and that is so normal now. It’s the end of everything and all the photographers will slowly disappear. In 10 years, there will be no photographers left any more.”
Lindbergh was not always averse to embracing technology, however. Just this year, when asked to photograph a group of 15 inspirational women for the September issue of British Vogue, guest edited by the Duchess of Sussex, he photographed Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, through a video link — a first for both him and the magazine.
Spanning four decades, Lindbergh produced a legacy of era-defining images, featuring the supermodels he was pivotal in launching on a global stage. “Over a period of 10 or 12 years, I worked with 10 models at most,” Lindbergh told John Galliano, in a conversation for Interview in 2013. “There were new faces, but there were those 10 who would blow everybody else away. So you worked with the same people.” And the rest, is fashion history.