Peter Lindbergh

Interview & Photography by: Mart Engelen


Interview with legendary photographer Peter Lindbergh, Antwerp/Paris 2012

Mart Engelen: When did you start taking photographs? And do you remember your first camera?
Peter Lindbergh: My first camera was a small 35mm camera and I bought it to photograph my brother’s children. At that time, I was more or less at the end of art school.
ME: So it was quite late?
PL: Yes. I had never had a camera before. I am not the kind of photographer who got his first camera from his grandfather at the age of three. (Laughs)
ME: What inspired you to take photographs then? And what inspires you today?
PL: As I said, I bought my first camera to photograph my brother’s children. I learned a lot from that experience. The value of innocence and of not being focused on yourself, and I have to say that these things have remained with me to this day. I can immediately feel when someone is putting on a camera face. As this is going to go nowhere, I’ll tell him or her, “Let’s try to move beyond this point together.” It’s a really interesting and exciting process. After I finished art school, I worked as a conceptual artist for a while but stopped for reasons too complex to explain here. I started photography more or less by accident when I was already 27. I was taken on as an assistant by a photographer who was a friend of a friend and I very quickly understood the potential of expression in photography. But your question was about inspiration. Let me try to answer that. Your inspiration is better if it comes from many different sources and your sensibilities will transform all those influences and inspiration into your own visual world. It’s like reading the book instead of watching the movie. Inspired by words, for example, you have to create images to tell the story, while it’s much more difficult to find your own images with a film for inspiration, because someone has already done it for you. I believe that the source of your inspiration is very important. I sometimes see this problem with photographers, even very good ones, who have drawn too much inspiration from photography and who, over time, have a problem forming their own identity.
ME: Do you collect art?
PL: I don’t collect art at all. I’m fascinated by art. I receive a lot of presents. My house is full of things, but I am not a collector; it’s just that people I work for, and friends, give me a lot of things. There are pictures all over the walls, sculptures, mobiles and paintings. I am embarrassed because I wonder what I should do with them. My dream is that the house burns down and I can start again from scratch. (laughs) It is a burden. I have a very big apartment in Paris but you can’t really move around there anymore; piles of books everywhere. I don’t want any more books. I have too many books; sometimes I have to buy another copy of a book that I know I have somewhere in my house or office because I can’t find it. So I’m not a collector at all.
ME: I remember shooting analogue; you had to wake up at five in the morning to catch the early morning light. Those days are over. Today you hear young photographers saying “We’ll go out with the team at nine and Photoshop that beautiful morning light later”. What do you think of this development in photography?
PL: I hate it. It makes me think that photography is no longer a love affair with the beauty of reality. We do use Photoshop, but only to reconstruct the analogue feeling of the pictures – you can’t see the difference anymore. Well, I don’t. But I have very good assistants – Laurent, Ivan and Stefan – who do it for me.
ME: About this exhibition now. Did you select the exhibits?
PL: Part of the exhibition comes from the series I did for German Vogue in Berlin in 2009. A collection of pictures of Berlin, so to speak. The other part is a selection by Klaus Honnef, a legendary German art critic, and I have to say that I love his selection. When I was still at art school I learned about concept art through a brilliant article Honnef wrote for the leading German art magazine of the time. This was one of the reasons why I was interested to see him to make a selection from my work. Most of the time we design exhibitions around periods or themes or other criteria. His choice mixes all periods. There are photographs I took between 1985 and 2010. I don’t exhibit work which I have done in the past year because I don’t think you can say whether it’s a good picture after a year. It takes a little more time. The interesting thing about his role in the exhibition is exactly this mix of old and new.
ME: The prints you show in this exhibition, are they silver gelatine or are there also digital prints?
PL: Both, there are silver gelatine and digital prints.
ME: The colour ones are digital?
PL: No, it’s not like that. We can now scan the old negatives perfectly, and that makes a lot of things much easier as you can use Photoshop to prepare them for printing. I remember how difficult it was to perform certain operations on gelatine prints. A few weeks ago I asked my gelatine printer at Picto, “Can you make just the shadows a little bit brighter?” He gave me a very strange look because in Photoshop you just turn a button, and we’re used to that now, but it is totally impossible in gelatine silver printing. Concerning the prints, I must say that I love some of the new papers for digital printing and I certainly don’t think that they’re inferior to the gelatine silver prints.
ME: Do you still shoot analogue?
PL: No. I stopped doing that five years ago.
ME: I have read that when you were very young you were inspired by the work of Vincent van Gogh.
PL: That’s why I went to Arles when I was about nineteen years old.
ME: What in his work inspired you?
PL: The violence I think. I mean his interpretation or transformation of nature in his paintings did not leave me unmoved. And I was fascinated by that violence. Before travelling to Arles, I was following evening classes at the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin. At the end of the second term, I had an argument with my teacher: his philosophy was that a painter had to start by painting true to nature. I thought, and I have to admit that I was very young, that this would be a big waste of time and totally useless. That was the moment I decided to hitchhike from Berlin to Arles, sure that I could learn more from breathing the same air as Van Gogh 75 years earlier. I lived there for seven months working half-days at a farm where I could sleep in a house that is in one of Van Gogh’s paintings. During the afternoons I painted and tried to morph into my idol…it obviously didn’t work out that way. (Laughs)
ME: Is there a photoshoot you’ll never forget?
PL: Oh yes. Years later, I was working for French Vogue and Irene Silvagny, the editor-in-chief, said to me, “You know Arles. Do you know Beauduc, the beach? Go there and do a story for me. You’ll see, its magic”. I went to Beauduc and stayed in the Nord Pinus Hotel in Arles. It had a lot of very interesting, painful and beautiful consequences for my private life but I brought an extremely powerful story home to Paris.
ME: When do you think a photographer becomes an artist? Should we consider photographers as artists?
PL: I think it is totally useless to think about this, because a photographer is a photographer and an artist is an artist. I don’t believe in labels or titles. Why should a painter or sculptor who has probably never challenged the rules be an artist just because his title and an art school education automatically make him one. Isn’t art about breaking rules, about challenging existing systems, isn’t it about discovering meaning in things or situations before others see anything in them?? The discussion about whether photography is or isn’t art is dated and of no interest. Your work makes you an artist, not your title.
ME: There are many successful German artists. I always notice a certain roughness when I look at the work of people like Baselitz or Kiefer and also at your work. Why do you think that is?
PL: My definition of beauty comes from the Ruhr area where I grew up. It is the biggest concentration of heavy industry in Europe. Beauty certainly has a different definition for me than for someone who was born in Venice, Rome or Paris. These are very different visual realities forming your perception of beauty. Why are the Chinese artists so overwhelmingly strong and productive? Because they have a different reality than artists in western countries. They’ve something to engage against. Their work automatically becomes more meaningful and related to their lives and this goes well beyond our aesthetic criteria in the West.