A brief personal recollection of a powerful influence in the world of photography.
This morning, I woke up to an Instagram feed full of tributes to one of the legends of photography, Peter Lindbergh, upon his passing at the age of 74. Not only was it an occasion to see a multitude of iconic images fly past my eyes one after another, it was also an opportunity to read through a litany of posts from people who were recalling their own personal experiences interacting with the man either on camera or off.
I had my own experience of having met Peter, albeit in a far less glamorous manner than those who encountered him with camera in hand. Long before I was a professional photographer, I was able to eek out a meager living working as a chauffeur for a limousine company here in Los Angeles. The stories generated by my years of doing that are worthy of their own novel, but one of the more memorable occurred when I was paged to hustle over to the Sunset Marquis Hotel in West Hollywood to pick up a passenger.
Lindbergh was the name. To be honest, at the time, I had no idea who that was. This was long before I paid any attention to photography or photographers. Given the swankiness of the small but exclusive pickup location, my immediate guess was that this Lindbergh fellow must be a descendant of Charles Lindberg, the famous American aviator. Famous for multiple reasons beyond his skills in the cockpit, including his questionable support of the “America First” movement, his wealth, and the scandalous mystery surrounding the 1932 kidnapping of the Lindberg baby.
But, this being the 21st Century, the man who greeted me at the curb with a strong German accent, was clearly not the heir to a prominent American family. I shook his hand and opened the door, but rather than stepping inside himself, the backseat was quickly occupied by a young woman and a small child. From what I could gather, this was one of Peter’s children and the child’s au pair. The ride had, in fact, been ordered for the two of them, and thus my brief encounter with Peter Lindbergh had come to an end.
I didn’t think much about it at the time. To be honest, my full attention turned to my passenger. Less so out of any particular pride in my job as a chauffeur and more because this woman in the back seat was one of the most beautiful I had ever seen. In hindsight, this would have been a great chance to solicit information about her employer and his work, but at the time I found myself more prone to questions meant to nonchalantly attain knowledge of whether or not she was single.
Much to my chagrin, our whirlwind romance (all in my own head) accounted to nothing more than a one way trip across the city and likely one too many glances into my rearview mirror when I should have been watching the road. Having safely deposited my passengers at the desired location, a Cirque du Soleil act at the beach which, if I remember correctly, somehow included horses, I opened my log book and checked off the name Lindbergh before heading to my next fare.
I wouldn’t hear that name again until several years later when I began my journey as a photographer. Then and now, what drew me to photography was the ability to capture people. An image may only represent 1/200th of a second of the subject’s life, but that single moment can bring with it so much power as to be deafening. A duality, a photograph may not always represent the whole truth, but it can often represent an ultimate truth. A great photographer can really see their subject. Not just as an object he uses to reflect light or sell a particular garment, but as a person. Lindbergh had this gift. The ability to create images that at once had the ability to elevate his subjects to the level of superhero, but at the same time acknowledge their humanity.
He came about in the age of the supermodel. And his work helped contribute to the era where a select group of models were household names. But the fact that even someone thoroughly unconnected to the fashion world would know these models by their first name was a testament to the fact that Lindbergh’s images were allowing the audience to not only see the garment but to see the woman.
While his images may have seemed simple from a technical standpoint in the sense that he didn’t appear to use an overabundance of lights or technology, his unmistakable style came to define an era. His frames were an artist’s canvas and a champion of the beauty of photography.
Looking back at many of my early black-and-white efforts as a photographer, it is clear to see his influence on my work. That is not to say, even in the slightest, that I had the skills or technique of Peter Lindbergh. Rather, that is to suggest that even before I fully understood his work, I had clearly subconsciously absorbed his work and envisioned it as a certain ideal.
So ingrained was my appreciation of his work that his passing caused me to reflect on my own career. He had such an influence on his craft and the artist he worked with. What would be my legacy? I can only hope to obtain the level of artistry Lindbergh obtained. Less so from a fame standpoint, but more so from the standpoint of the human connections he was able to make with the people he worked with. Scrolling through the uncharacteristically lengthy and personal captions on the multiple Instagram posts this morning referring to his death, it was clear that his connections with his colleagues went far beyond the beauty of his images.
I think, as artists, this is really the larger lesson to be learned from his great tale having finally reached its conclusion. An enviable body of work is one thing and certainly something to be proud of. But what will those you’ve worked with say about you as a person once you are gone. Therein lies our real legacy. Therein lies our truth.