Peter Lindbergh is one of those people you could talk about forever - the life and work of the 70-something photographer is so rich. He helped define the supermodel era, he revolutionised the interpretation of beauty and he redefined fashion photography in a powerful way. He has been fashion royalty for over 40 years. There's little this legend hasn't explored in a career spanning four decades and counting. Having accomplished so much, most people would like to just lean back and enjoy life. Not Peter. With a new exhibition in the German city of Düsseldorf and new Taschen book, Peter Lindbergh A Different Vision on Fashion Photography, it's time to celebrate Peter the Great. While the photographer was in Berlin for a book signing, i-D Germany caught up with him to chat about his influence on the careers of so many, and if there's something Peter Lindbergh still wonders about.
Cindy Crawford, Tatjana Patitz, Helena Christensen, Linda Evangelista, Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell, Karen Mulder & Stephanie Seymour, Brooklyn, 1991Vogue US © Peter Lindbergh (Courtesy of Peter Lindbergh, Paris / Gagosian Gallery)
Since we are in Berlin, what's your relationship with this city?
Everything started for me here in Berlin, the boy from Duisburg. During the day I worked as a product photographer at the Karstadt department store on Hermannplatz and went to evening school afterwards. I wanted to paint abstract art but soon realised that I needed to study classical art for that. Vincent van Gogh always inspired me — what he accomplished I wanted as well. And that's what I did. I travelled to Arles, then to Spain and Morocco. After two years, I returned to Germany. My time in Berlin was a key moment, a starting point for me.
Is there something you always do when you're back in Berlin?
Now, I do all the things I couldn't afford back then [laughs]. And I often go the Paris Bar.
You have many admirers. What does it feel like?
I refused to do book signings until last year. I had absolutely no interest in doing that, but things change. It's an unbelievably beautiful and emotional situation. Of course, you get the occasional idiot but these things are fun, generally speaking. And I must say that I'm pretty shy. If someone starts to cry because of me, I don't know what to say or do for example. [laughs]. But I don't have real groupies.
How does it make you feel that you and your work touches the lives and careers of so many people?
That's a good feeling, no doubt about that. You don't have to necessarily see or know these people personally, but knowing they exist is something very beautiful. It gets you through hard times, you know?
Are you proud of your work, now looking back from a distance?
I wouldn't use the word proud. Let's say it's a feeling of being free. Yes, you feel free.
You're over 70 years old. I don't mean to be disrespectful, but a lot of people your age want to sit back and relax, you don't seem like someone who can sit still, you're a person who needs to keep on doing things.
My urge to keep creating won't go away. People ask me why I'm doing so much work. They tell me, 'You don't have to and you don't need to.' I ask myself, why do people think that? I keep asking myself: why shouldn't I be interested in things anymore? I don't feel like leaning back. My head is still spinning. I know what I want to do — and what not to do.
Do people have a vision of who Peter Lindbergh is or isn't when they meet you?
Yes, that happens. You need to stay away and avoid it. You cannot allow other people to tell you what to do or how you should be.
When did you realise you had talent?
When I look back on my work, I have to say there were some real big moments. But being in that moment, you don't always recognise it. I always concentrated on my work and tried not to let others influence me.
That must be incredibly hard…
You need to recognise your talent, treasure it and make it visible. Everything else will disappear after that, like having the feeling of being proud. I see that in a lot of people who think they are intelligent. They have a certain talent but don't possess an independent access to their creativity. They are influenced too much by other people, they're unable to pinpoint their own potential and make something out of it. Instead, they do as they are told and are ruled by expectations of others.
Tina Turner, Paris, 1989 Stern © Peter Lindbergh (Courtesy of Peter Lindbergh, Paris / Gagosian Gallery)
The definition and perception of beauty continually changes. I wonder if your perception of your work and your own definition of beauty have been influenced by these changing attitudes?
I recently worked on the Pirelli Calendar and I asked myself one question: 'What will people think when they look back on our image of women? What impression do we leave behind?' Our current perception of beauty is driven by commercial interests, I find that awful. As I was asked to do the Pirelli Calendar — a format with such presence and influence — I accepted under one condition, I wanted to do it differently and show the women without make-up.
Is there anything that still amazes or frightens you?
Frighten not so much, maybe a few political developments. But many things still amaze me today.
What was the last thing that amazed you?
That was a kind of self-observation. You gain new perspectives if you think beyond your normal paths, you learn to acknowledge new contexts and connections, if you are willing to try out new things.
Self-reflection seems harder today because we create this online persona that often doesn't correspond with the real person behind it. What do you make of it?
I find the whole Instagram and follower thing suspicious. Nonetheless, it's fascinating to see how many different people from around the world you can reach. We started over a year ago just for the sake of doing it, but we never intended to get so big. That's incredible.
Text Alexandra Bondi de Antoni
Photography courtesy of Taschen