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Peter Lindbergh: ‘I don’t retouch anything’

The photographer who created the supermodels talks to Tamsin Blanchard on the eve of his exhibition in Paris, Gagosian Gallery

Linda Evangelista 'flying' through a New York street in a long, trailing black gown
Flying high: Linda Evangelista in Chanel, New York, 1992.

Flying into Rotterdam as the early mist hangs over the seemingly endless docks, it strikes me that this is an appropriate location in which to meet the photographer Peter Lindbergh. This is the man who has made raw images his signature – whether a stark electricity pylon shot in the industrial city of Duisburg, Germany, where Lindbergh grew up, or the untouched portrait of a model’s face, apparently devoid of make-up or any other such artifice.
‘Oh, but she looks tired,’ they say. So what? Tired and beautiful
In fact, if I had arrived the previous day, I might have seen Lindbergh in action in one of the semi-derelict warehouses where he was photographing the 32-year-old model Lara Stone. The shoot is a commission by Dutch Vogue to coincide with “A Different Vision on Fashion Photography”, an exhibition of Lindbergh’s work which opens this September in Rotterdam.
I met Lindbergh at Rem Koolhaas’s Kunsthal, where he was editing the Lara Stone images with the show’s curator, Thierry-Maxime Loriot. “I see him more as an artist,” Loriot told me. “He has such strong themes. You can immediately say, ‘That’s a Lindbergh image’ because of the timelessness of the portraits, without make-up, without hair. They never date.”

Amber Valletta in white and with large white wings in a New York street
Wing and a prayer: Amber Valletta wearing Helmut Lang, New York, 1993.

Lindbergh does what he does. And as long as you don’t try to retouch what he does, he is happy. A warm, round bear of a man, his glasses perched on the end of his nose, he shows me some of the images of Stone. Someone had suggested that her nose was a little red. Unlike much of his work, the picture is in colour. Lara, her hair rough and messy, stares back at me looking powerful, womanly, slightly lined, and yes, a little pink around the nose. “She looks absolutely fantastic… raw, the same power as Kate [Moss],” he says. He shakes his head. “But who cares if her nose is red? You don’t see the power and the poetry of not being perfect?”
Magazines have to sign a contract agreeing not to do any retouching, otherwise, he says, it happens. “The cosmetic companies have everyone brainwashed. I don’t retouch anything. ‘Oh, but she looks tired!’ they say. So what if she looks tired? Tired and beautiful.”
Of course it helps if the subject is extraordinarily beautiful to start with. And Lindbergh is the man credited with discovering the supermodels, after all. He describes the iconic 1990 cover he shot for British Vogue – of Linda, Christy, Tatjana, Naomi and Cindy – as “the birth certificate of the supermodels”.
“I never had the idea that this was history,” he says. “Never for one second… I didn’t do anything, a bit of light. It came together very naturally, effortless; you never felt you were changing the world. It was all intuition.”

Kate Moss in dungarees with naked shoulders for Harper’s Bazaar, 1994
New look: Kate Moss for Harper’s Bazaar, 1994.

Two years before, Lindbergh had photographed a group of new faces including Linda, Christy and Tatjana for a story for American Vogue. The shots of the girls, windswept on the beach wearing nothing but plain white shirts, were totally out of kilter with the bold, glitzy, big-haired fashion then filling the pages of the magazine, and the editor at the time, Grace Mirabella, was not impressed. “She threw the pictures in the waste basket,” says Lindbergh.
I left Poland in 1944 with my family, on a little platform with a horse. We travelled 2,500km to western Germany
Happily for him, Mirabella was fired not long after, and in August 1988 Anna Wintour took over and promptly hired Lindbergh to shoot her first cover. It signalled a complete change for the magazine – and for the mood of fashion in general. Wintour chose Lindbergh’s shot of the Israeli model Michaela Bercu. Her long, wavy hair is blowing in the wind. She is laughing, her eyes squinting in the sun. If she is wearing make-up, it is minimal. Her midriff, below a bejewelled Christian Lacroix top, is bare, and she is wearing jeans.
“I couldn’t stand the kind of woman who was featured in the magazine, supported by the rich husband,” he says, with a shudder, describing the pre-Wintour years. “I’ve never been impressed by somebody who came in with a crocodile bag, you know?”

Supermodels in white shirts stand sandwiched against each other on a beach
Birth of the supermodels: (from left) Estelle Lefébure, Karen Alexander, Rachel Williams, Linda Evangelista, Tatjana Patitz and Christy Turlington, Malibu, 1988.

Of the many film stars and celebrities he has photographed, from Charlotte Rampling to Keith Richards, I wonder how he manages to circumvent the publicists’ ever-increasing demands for picture approval and retouching, or the agents who say he can only have half an hour with the talent. “I say: ‘Why don’t you fuck yourself and get out of here?’ – and I say it in a way they even say thank you.” He laughs, and I believe him.
That is part of his charm and part of how you get to be Peter Lindbergh. You have a vision. You don’t compromise on it for one minute, and you get your way – but always with a smile.
Lindbergh, 71, has been the subject of many exhibitions, and this one promises to speak to a new generation, not least because of the gallery dedicated to the “supermodels”. “I usually kick the supermodels out of exhibitions because it’s too commercial, but there is so much history – it’s forced me to look at them again.”
Although his photography is largely commissioned by and produced for fashion magazines, he uses clothes as props rather than the central element for the shoot. “I don’t even ask what outfit I’m shooting,” he says. But it is the advertisers who pay for the paper that the fashion stories are printed on (and when Lindbergh shoots for Italian Vogue, his stories will span at least 20 pages), so how does he feel about his photography being used as a vehicle to give clothing credits to those advertisers? “I don’t care what they slip in as long is it can integrate with the picture I want to do,” he shrugs. “But if it doesn’t fit, then I don’t care for the credits, I have to say.”

Michaela Bercu in a black Christian Lacroix jumper with a large, jewelled cross on it
New wave: Michaela Bercu in Christian Lacroix, 1988, chosen by Anna Wintour for her first cover as Vogue editor.

Lindbergh was born in 1944 in Lissa, in western Poland. When he was just two months old the family were forced by the Russians to flee. “What I know is my mum, my grandmother and my sister and my brother and I got on a little platform with two wheels and a horse, left there and ended up travelling 2,500km. Isn’t that incredible? In the war! We travelled through Berlin all the way down to south Germany, in the Alps.”
I was lost to society, smoking pot, sleeping outside. Two years on the road is a lot of time to think
Lindbergh was the youngest of three children. His father was shot early in the war. “A sniper shot him, ripped off his fingers.” It probably saved his life as he worked in the barracks for the rest of the war. When he returned home, he became a salesman for a sweet company.
The family ended up in Duisburg, the centre of Germany’s steel industry. “We had no money. We had three small floors, for five people. Today when I go into my apartment I have a huge hall and big rooms with high ceilings!” His parents lived in the family home all their lives. “Duisburg was the worst industrial, depressive part of Germany. But it was great. We had nothing, but I didn’t miss nothing so that was fine.”

Keith Richards in a white open shirt and black jacket, holding a cigarette and smoke coming from his mouth
Paint it black: Keith Richards in Tom Ford for Gucci, New York, 1999.

At 14 he left school to start work as a window dresser in a local branch of the Karstadt department store. He moved to Switzerland at 18 to avoid military service in Germany and then to Berlin, where he got a job at Karstadt again. But it wasn’t long before he started to see other possibilities.
“It was really exciting,” he recalls. “I had never seen an exhibition, an art book, I’d never listened to music, nothing. I’d never been in a museum before! I was like a dry towel – I sucked up everything.”
He enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts but soon decided to follow in the footsteps of Van Gogh and go to Arles to discover himself. He worked on a farm in the mornings and painted in the afternoons, selling his work in the markets to make some money. After eight months, like a proper beatnik, he set off hitchhiking around Europe and North Africa. Finally he returned to Germany. “I was about 20. I was lost to society: smoking pot, sleeping outside. Two years on the road is long. That is a lot of time to think. It made me a different man.”
Lindbergh discovered photography quite by accident. “My brother had fabulous children before I had children and for some reason I wanted to photograph them, and that was when I got my first camera. Children have something totally unconscious about them. That’s how I learned.”

Charlotte Rampling, her arms across her naked chest, large bangles on her wrists
Short cut: Charlotte Rampling for Giorgio Armani, Paris, 1987.

Having established himself in Germany – he opened his own studio in Düsseldorf in 1973, shot the first ad campaign for VW Golf and his first fashion shoot for the prestigious Stern magazine in 1978 – he moved to Paris, where he has lived ever since. He has four children – all boys – and is married to Petra Sedlaczek, who is also a photographer (she started out assisting Lindbergh).
Like those of Steven Meisel, Bruce Weber and David Sims, his images continue to be relevant – rarely a Vogue Italia goes by without one of his stories. And while Lindbergh says the era of the supermodels is over, he tends to work with the same models over and over again – Lara Stone is a current favourite, as are Mariacarla Boscono, Kate Moss and Kristen McMenamy. Like a choreographer, these are his dancers and it’s not about finding the new all the time, but building a relationship and creating a style that is beyond fashion.
He draws my attention to his image used for last year’s ad for the Calvin Klein fragrance Eternity. “It was Mark Vanderloo and Christy Turlington, very simple, just the two of them, looking at the camera. And it was done 25 years ago and they just used the same image again and nobody figured it out. It looked just like from yesterday, which was really nice. If you don’t do anything, what could age in that picture?” he asks. He sits back in his chair, and smiles. “Nothing!” And that’s the truth.

Zhang Huan, a Top Conceptual Chinese Artist

One of China's best-known performance and Conceptual artists, Zhang Huan's more recent work has consisted of sculptures and paintings that reference the history of his native China, from significant political, intellectual, and religious figures to anonymous portraits and landscape scenes. For his two- and three-dimensional works, Zhang frequently uses both common objects and unusual organic materials, including feathers, cowhides, and for his 2005 sculpture Donkey, a taxidermied donkey. Particularly evocative is Zhang’s use of incense ash, a material that epitomizes both detritus and religious ritual, with which he paints and sculpts works that are as olfactory as they are visual.

Zhang Huan was born in 1965, Anyang, China, based in Shanghai, China

Zhang Huan began his work as part of a small artistic community, known as the Beijing East Village, located on the margins of the city. The group of friends from art school pioneered this particular brand of performance in China and Zhang was often reprimanded by officials for the perceived inappropriateness of his actions.
Zhang’s performances always involve his body in one way or another, usually naked, occasionally involving masochistic actions. For example, an exhibited photography showed him as "a naked man, his head half-shaved, sitting in a prison-like space. His skin was wet and covered with flies. His face looked blank but tough, as if he were trying to meditate his way through pain."
In a more benign group performance "called 'To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond', he asked 40 migrant laborers to stand in a pond, their physical presence, presumably, altering its volume. For another titled 'To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain,' he and nine other artists climbed a mountain near Beijing, stripped and lay down on top of one another to create a second, mini-peak."
Zhang involves the body in his sculptures as well. He makes giant copper hands and feet, magnified versions of fragments of broken Buddhist figures that he found in Tibet.
By using quasi-religious ritual, he seeks to discover the point at which the spiritual can manifest via the corporeal. He uses simple repetitive gestures, usually regarded as meaningless work-for-work’s-sake chores. Buddhism, with its temple music, sculptures and philosophy are a prevalent theme in Zhang Huan’s work.
His sculpture "Long Ear Ash Head", for example, consists of a massive head made of incense ash and steel. It fuses the artist’s image with the lengthened earlobes representing happiness and good fortune in the Buddhist religion.
He continued to explore Buddhism with sculpture "Sydney Buddha", an exhibition where two Buddha sculptures were positioned facing each other: "One, a headless metal statue. The other, a crumbling sculpture made from over 20 tonnes of incense ash, which was collected from Buddhist temples in Shanghai and across China’s Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces."
Of "Sydney Buddha", the artist said: “The piece conveys the collective memory, soul, thoughts and prayers, and collapse of mankind. It implies a collective ineffectiveness, arising from taking action when none should be taken, upsetting the natural order of things."
He has exhibited at shows including the 2002 Whitney Biennial and Rituals at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin.
In the nearly 40 different performance art pieces that Zhang Huan performs, he addresses a variety of issues. “The power of unified action to challenge oppressive political regimes; the status and plight of the expatriate in the new global culture; the persistence of structures of faith in communities undermined by violent conflict; and the place of censorship in contemporary democracy.”

12 Square Meters

Zhang Huan grew up with the experience of living in a crowded village area. He did not have much space for himself, which impressed the idea of China’s overpopulation on him at young age. In 1994, Zhang Huan was in a small village in China and needed to use a restroom after lunch. He found a public restroom just off the street and went on in. Because of a lot of rain the village had been receiving, the restroom wasn’t cleaned recently due to “weather precautions”. As Huan entered the restroom he found that it reeked with awful smells and flies were everywhere in the room. This experience reminded him of his childhood and the small crowded, unclean restrooms he used when he was growing up. “Once I stepped in, I found myself surrounded by thousands of flies that seemed to have been disturbed by my appearance. I felt as if my body was being devoured by the flies.” This experience served as inspiration for the piece: piece. “Zhang Huan spread on his body a visceral liquid of fish and honey to attract the flies in the public restroom in the village. He sat on the toilet, almost immobile for an hour.” In a matter of minutes, his body became covered in flies, seeking out to get some of the treat attached to Huan.

Zhang Huan, 2007.

One of Zhang Huan’s first performance art pieces dates back to 1993 at the National Art Gallery located in Beijing, China. Huan placed a giant white canvas on the floor of the exhibition space, then stepped out of the exhibition area and had a jar of red liquid (supposed to represent blood) and mangled doll parts poured over him. Afterwards, Huan picked up the doll pieces and walked back to the exhibition space and onto the canvas, where he then tried to reassemble the doll back together on the canvas. “This work, a startling and visceral commentary on the Chinese government mandate of abortions for women conceiving more than the legal limit of one child, led to a quick closure of the exhibition and serious censure of the artist.”


Foam is one of Zhang Huan’s non-performance pieces, of which he has not done many. The piece consists of 15 photographs of his face where he is covered in what appears to be sea foam. In his mouth is his wife’s family.

Family Tree consists of nine sequential images of Zhang Huan’s face. The photographs are taken in a chronological order, from dusk to dawn. This performance piece is supposed to be a representation of Huan’s lineage. During the work, Huan would have three calligraphers write a combination of names known to Zhang Huan, personal stories, learned tales and random thoughts. The calligraphers worked on his face, adding more and more during the chronological period. Eventually, his face was covered by so much calligraphy, it was hard to make out what was actually written.

Family Tree

Family Tree consists of nine sequential images of Zhang Huan’s face. The photographs are taken in a chronological order, from dusk to dawn. This performance piece is supposed to be a representation of Huan’s lineage. During the work, Huan would have three calligraphers write a combination of names known to Zhang Huan, personal stories, learned tales and random thoughts. The calligraphers worked on his face, adding more and more during the chronological period. Eventually, his face was covered by so much calligraphy, it was hard to make out what was actually written.

From other Exhibitions

Selected solo exhibitions[edit]

  • 1988 Henan University, Kaifeng
  • 1999 Max Protetch Gallery, New York
  • 2000 Cotthem Gallery, Barcelona
  • 2001 Galerie Albert Benamou, Paris
  • 2002 Kunstverein in Hamburg
  • 2003 Bochum Museum, Bochum
  • 2004 Norton Museum of Art, Florida
  • 2005 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
  • 2006 Sherman Galleries, Sydney
  • 2007 Haunch of Venison, London
  • 2008 Shanghai Art Museum, Shanghai
  • 2009 Haunch of Venison, Zürich
  • 2011 Blum & Poe, Los Angeles
  • 2012 Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
  • 2013 Palazzo Vecchio, Forte di Belvedere, Firenze
  • 2014 Pace London, Spring Poppy Fields

Selection: SD

Le théoricien des sociétés de contrôle

Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995)

Dans ses derniers textes, le philosophe Gilles Deleuze évoque l’« installation progressive et dispersée d’un régime de domination » des individus et des populations, qu’il nomme « société de contrôle ». Deleuze emprunte le terme de « contrôle » à l’écrivain William Burroughs mais s’appuie pour formuler son idée sur les travaux de Michel Foucault consacrés aux «  sociétés disciplinaires ». Dans ces dernières, que Foucault situe aux XVIIIe et XIXe siècles et dont il fixe l’apogée au début du XXe, l’individu ne cesse de passer d’un « milieu d’enfermement » à l’autre : la famille, l’école, l’armée, l’usine, l’hôpital, la prison... Toutes ces institutions, dont la prison et l’usine sont les modèles privilégiés, sont autant de dispositifs propices à la surveillance, au quadrillage, à la maîtrise des individus constitués en « corps » (démographique, politique, salarial, etc.) dociles, insérés dans des « moules ». Le développement des sociétés disciplinaires correspond à l’essor du capitalisme industriel, que Deleuze définit comme un capitalisme « à concentration, pour la production, et de propriété », qui « érige donc l’usine en milieu d’enfermement ».
Or, selon Deleuze, nous assistons à une crise généralisée de ces milieux d’enfermement, concomitante de la transformation du capitalisme industriel en capitalisme « dispersif », de surproduction, « c’est-à-dire pour la vente ou pour le marché », où « l’usine cède la place à l’entreprise ». Ce nouveau type d’organisation, qui s’appuie sur l’évolution technique et le développement des technologies de l’information et de la communication, semble garantir une plus grande marge de manœuvre aux individus, des espaces-temps plus ouverts et flexibles, davantage de mobilité, mais en apparence seulement. Car, contrairement aux dispositifs disciplinaires, qui procèdent par la coercition et la concentration des corps, le mouvement et la liberté de circulation sont les conditions nécessaires à l’exercice d’un pouvoir qui opère désormais par « contrôle continu » de tous les aspects de l’existence et par « communication instantanée ».
L’entreprise, fondée sur une idéologie et un mode de fonctionnement spécifiques – la « rivalité inexpiable comme saine émulation » –, y joue un rôle central, et le marketing, qui permet d’influencer les consommateurs, de fabriquer des comportements et de formater les esprits au moyen de techniques toujours plus affinées, est « maintenant l’instrument du contrôle social ».
Ces sociétés, celles des ordinateurs, des dispositifs informatiques de télésurveillance et de la cybernétique, n’ont pas encore aboli les précédentes, souligne Deleuze. Mais elles émergent à la faveur de la décomposition des institutions disciplinaires en procédés plus souples et plus insidieux d’assujettissement. Et face « aux formes prochaines de contrôle incessant en milieu ouvert, il se peut que les plus durs enfermements nous paraissent appartenir à un passé délicieux et bienveillant ».
Olivier Pironet