Peter Lindbergh & the Birth of the Supermodels

By Irene Gonzalez
Saddened by the death of Peter Lindbergh, the famed photographer whose images helped chart the rise of the supermodel in the 1990s, we revisit an article that showcases some of his most iconic photographs.

I n 1987, Peter Lindbergh received a call from Alexander Liberman, then the creative director of Condé Nast. He wanted to know why the German photographer did not want to work for American Vogue to which Lindbergh honestly replied: "I just can’t take the types of photographs of women that are in your magazine".

At the time, female models in fashion photography were essentially depicted as overly styled mannequins that did not represent the contemporary woman. As Lindbergh put it: "I wanted to move away from the rather formal, perfectly styled woman who was very artificial. I was more concerned about a more outspoken, adventurous woman in control of her life and not too concerned about her social status emancipated by masculine protection."

As a way to get the photographer to work for American Vogue, Liberman asked to show him what he meant. This conversation resulted in arguably one of the most seminal images in fashion photography, Estelle Lefébure, Karen Alexander, Rachel Williams, Linda Evangelista, Tatjana Patitz, Christy Turlington, Vogue U.S.A. Santa Monica, California, 1988. A few months after Liberman’s proposition, Lindbergh put together a group of young and exciting models who were new faces at the time. He chose the beach in Santa Monica as a location and shot very simple images. Captured in white shirts, bearing powerful expressions, the models transmit the photographer’s understanding of the modern independent woman.

When the proofs of the shoot arrived to the publication’s New York office, Vogue’s editor in chief at the time, Grace Mirabella, refused to print the images. However, barely six months later, Anna Wintour became Vogue’s new editor and upon discovering Lindbergh’s images decided not only to use them but also chose to include one in Condé Nast’s retrospective book On the Edge: Images from 100 Years of Vogue, calling it the most important photograph of the decade.

This was the birth of the supermodels, and this image would come to represent the modern powerful woman that would dominate the fashion industry for years to come. The super-models portrayed Lindbergh’s vision of, "a more outspoken, adventurous woman in control of her life and not too concerned about her social status emancipated by masculine protection".

Undoubtedly, this photograph is one of Lindbergh’s most iconic works which established him as a leading figure in the medium. Soon after the publication of the Santa Monica images, and with Anna Wintour’s full support, the photographer continued envisioning his women in even more unconventional environments as seen in lot 23,The Wild Ones: Cindy Crawford, Tatjana Patitz, Helena Christensen, Linda Evangelista, Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell, Karen Mulder, Stephanie Seymour, Vogue U.S.A., Brooklyn, 1991. In this shot, the models are portrayed in the streets of downtown New York, dressed with biker jackets.

Another great example of Lindbergh’s understanding of the new female image is seen in Ulli Steinmeier, Lynne Koester, Cindy Crawford and Linda Evangelista, Pin Up Studios, Paris, 1989. The photographer captured the models posing as a mop-topped Fab Four. Although commissioned by Vogue Italia, Lindbergh often used clothes as props rather than as the central element of the shoot, moving away from the idea of models as mannequins.

Again, these images were a departure from Vogue’s more conventional approach to fashion as Lindbergh’s chameleonic models were placed away from the Upper East Side of the city, in outfits that exuded power and self confidence. Peter Lindbergh’s timeless works are an ode to realism, beauty and most importantly to the prioritisation of his models, capturing them as heroines, femme fatales and strong women always in control.

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