Peter Lindbergh: Untold Stories

A new exhibition on a dockside in Spain showcases the raw power of Peter Lindbergh’s work through 161 images curated by the photographer over the two years before his death

People 16 Dec 2021

Luciana Curtis, New York, 1998 © Peter Lindbergh (courtesy Peter Lindbergh Foundation, Paris)

Luciana Curtis, New York, 1998 © Peter Lindbergh (courtesy Peter Lindbergh Foundation, Paris)

‘My father worked on this exhibition for two years right up to when he passed away,’ explains Benjamin Lindbergh. We are in A Coruña, a city in Galicia, northern Spain, and Peter Lindbergh: Untold Stories has recently opened to the public. It is a show that debuted in Düsseldorf in 2020, a year after the photographer’s death, and is the last thing he worked on. ‘He handed over the entire exhibition two days before passing away, saying, “This is it. I’ve got it and this is exactly how I want it to be,” says the photographer’s son, who was charged with fulfilling his father’s vision.

‘My father worked on this for two years, going through his archives, years of photography,’ explains Benjamin. ‘He didn’t want this to be a retrospective, which is a word he hated, because he said retrospectives are for dead people. Well, sadly, he did die, but still, it’s not a retrospective. What he wanted to do was to show a very intimate view of his own work, spanning 40 years of his photography. So this is how the project was born. And so, there’s a little bit of everything.’

There certainly is. Here we have fashion shots, landscapes and portraits, shot on location or in a studio, all arranged to speak to each other across time and place. ‘He started with a timeline going from the late 1970s, early 1980s, until 2017 or 18,’ explains Benjamin. ‘But he knew that just going chronologically through the images wouldn’t make any sense, so that’s when he started to pair images – putting diptychs and triptychs or just groups of six or however many pictures together. He wants the viewer to make up their own story from the images and that’s why it’s called Untold Stories. That’s why there’s no substantial text in the exhibition: he doesn’t want to tell people what they have to think or how they have to see or view the images. He wants every viewer to make up his or her own story. And every picture to be its own story.’

We are standing in a spacious, brightly lit gallery that has been especially constructed, surrounded by large black-and-white shots by Peter Lindbergh, the fashion photographer who died at the age of 74 in 2019. The images are mainly of women, though there are some pictures of locations and a few of men. Many look familiar, which is because either you have seen the shot before, or because Lindbergh’s signature style has been so much a part of the cultural landscape for the past few decades. (In fact, there are many never-before-seen pictures on display). This, after all, is the photographer who shot the famous black-and-white January 1990 British Vogue cover of a group of young models who would become the ‘supers’, and who went on to help develop the careers of these women, and many others, by portraying their humanity in a way that is profoundly unusual in his chosen milieu – that of fashion.

Lindbergh Foundation, Paris). Right: Karen Elson, Los Angeles, 1997 ©
Left: Linda Evangelista, Michaela Bercu & Kirsten Owen, Pont-à-Mousson, 1988 © Peter Lindbergh (courtesy Peter Lindbergh Foundation, Paris). Right: Karen Elson, Los Angeles, 1997 ©
Peter Lindbergh (courtesy Peter Lindbergh Foundation, Paris)

However, it is a paradox that though Peter Lindbergh is known as a fashion photographer, the clothes were always the last thing on his mind. At the entrance to the new exhibition is a large space in which visitors can sit and watch a short film documenting how the photographer worked. Images of his team on a desolate, wide beach are intercut with talking heads explaining why he managed to tease such powerful, natural performances from them. At one point, the photographer says quite simply, ‘I like fashion. But fashion has no role in my pictures. I live on a different planet – that is a very nice way to work. You’re always somewhere else.’

‘Planet Lindbergh’ is a visually arresting place. More often than not the settings for his pictures are industrial spaces, or rugged natural landscapes. In this exhibition we also see how a city like New York can become a Lindberghian backdrop where the stuff of life moves around the subject of the shot – inevitably a person possessed of beauty – a clear, unaffected beauty – emerging, as it were, from the busy, urban bustle.

There is a powerful sense of place to many of these pictures, and yet, that place is the place of Lindbergh’s imagination, not of geography. The exhibition gives little away, The pictures are simply labelled with the name of the protagonist, the location and the date. And you need to look twice to see whether we are in New York, Florence, Deauville, the Mojave Desert or at a Hollywood studio. Because the actual, literal setting is never the point. It is the mood of the place that counts.

Peter Lindbergh grew up in Duisburg in Germany, an industrial city, with a harbour, where the Ruhr and Rhine rivers meet, and the aesthetic of his childhood home coloured his aesthetic throughout his life. As his son, Benjamin, says: ‘For my father, Duisburg – this machinery, this industrial side for him ­– that was beautiful. And, of course, if people come from somewhere like Venice, they might say, “What are you talking about?” But for my father Duisburg was beautiful. That’s where he grew up. And that’s the type of setting he liked. Of course, had he grown up in another city, in a more beautiful city, his photography would have been absolutely different. It would have been another story.’

Here in A Coruña, the Galician city has a beautiful, picturesque old town, all narrow streets with shops and bars. But there is also an aspect to the place that is pure Lindbergh. This is down at the port, and the exhibition has been staged there in an industrial building that has been converted by local architect Elsa Urquijo, with a coffee shop and merchandise store housed in a remodelled former silo. The approach to the show therefore feels like you are walking through a Peter Lindbergh photograph and acts as an effective, immersive experience.

Uma Thurman, New York, 2016, © Peter Lindbergh
Uma Thurman, New York, 2016, © Peter Lindbergh


The photographer’s relationship with this city was forged through his work for fashion retailer Zara, for whom he took campaign photographs. Zara’s founder, Amancio Ortega, opened his first store in 1975 in A Coruña, and today the headquarters of this global, multi-billion-pound business is in the town of Arteixo, just a few kilometres away. Many of the 5,000-plus people who work there live in A Coruña, and it is fair to say that the effect of Inditex (the holding company that owns Zara) on life there has been profound. The new exhibition is part of an initiative by Marta Ortega, daughter of Amancio Ortega, to make A Coruña a cultural hub and host to global arts events. As well as the show itself, there is a related educational programme centred around Peter Lindbergh’s work that is being run in collaboration with the University of A Coruña and a group of visual artists from Galicia.

Interestingly, Marta Ortega was announced as chair of Inditex just days before Peter Lindbergh: Untold Stories opened. ‘Marta knew my father and they were friends,’ explains Benjamin. ‘I walked her through the show when it opened in Dusseldorf. And at that moment, I think something must have sparked and she said, “Oh, I want to bring this show to my hometown.”‘

Benjamin is indebted to Marta Ortega for enabling him to replicate exactly the staging of the exhibition that was mounted in Dusseldorf. This is important, as Lindbergh meticulously planned the hanging of the space. He is even reported to have said: ‘When I saw my photos on the wall in the exhibition model for the first time, it gave me a fright, but also in a good way. It was overwhelming to be thus confronted with who I am.’

‘We have had the extreme privilege to be able to build the exhibition exactly how my dad had envisioned it,’ says Benjamin, who directs the Lindbergh Foundation. And he feels the wider setting adds a great new dimension, too. ‘When Peter visited A Coruña in 2018, the connection between the harbour city and his aesthetics resonated immediately. Galicia’s gloomy weather, the tumultuous tide waves intertwined with the omnipresent industrial background seemed like a perfect counterpart to the Ruhr region, where my father grew up in Germany. Such a place, where both force of nature and force of mankind unite harmoniously, would fit almost perfectly with Untold Stories, the last exhibition he worked on and very likely his most personal project ever.’

Marta Ortega agrees: ‘Peter and Galicia have great similarities… savage nature, natural beauty, the human warmth that makes you feel alive. It is my great privilege to be able to bring them both together.’

Peter Lindbergh © Stefan Rappo (courtesy Peter Lindbergh Foundation, Paris)
Peter Lindbergh © Stefan Rappo (courtesy Peter Lindbergh Foundation, Paris)


There is indeed a rawness to the work. Famous faces – from Naomi Campbell and Claudia Schiffer to Jessica Chastain and Nicole Kidman – are pictured looking less like super(human) models and actors and more like elemental, vulnerable people, stripped of their game-faces. Sometimes, you even need to check the caption on the wall to make sure that this is indeed the globally famous person you think you recognise, because the recognition is not instant.

The photographer’s desire to get to the essence of his subjects, to see beyond the professional pose, the artifice of hair and make-up, even the transformative power of fashion itself, is something that Michael Benson came to understand as he worked on a book specially commissioned to accompany the show in Galicia. Benson is co-founder of Photo London, and was asked to create Peter Lindbergh: Raw Beauty, a collection of interviews with those who knew and worked with the photographer, and many who were shot by him. He is in Spain for the opening of the exhibition, and tells a couple of stories that underline the way in which Lindbergh approached his craft, and the effect he could have.

One famously concerns the cutting of Linda Evangelista’s hair. The young model had long hair but Lindbergh and hair stylist Julien d’Ys decided to chop it off for a photo session, much to her trepidation. D’Ys was interviewed for Raw Beauty and reveals that he was nervous and the model was in tears (and that he still has her ponytail), but the resulting bob transformed Evangelista’s fortunes and became her signature look. The photographer – who captured the whole traumatic affair on film – had told her that 10 years from then, she’d look back and realise it was the right thing to do.

‘Then there’s Rosalía,’ says Benson. ‘She’s one of the people in the book, this wonderfully idiosyncratic Spanish singer who sings these beautiful, beautiful songs, but always has these nail enhancements, jewellery, lots of makeup and everything else. Peter told her to take all that stuff off for a photo and she said, “No, no, no, this is me”. And he said, “Look, when I’ve finished this you’ll absolutely adore it. So please do what I tell you”. And she did, and she loved it. He had the ability to see through to people, to the essence.’

Benson cites Penélope Cruz, another Spaniard he spoke to for Raw Beauty: ‘Peter really knew how to shoot a woman,’ she says. ‘Just look at the images. Everything is clear. You can see the skin. You can see the eyes. You can almost peer into the soul of the person he is shooting… There is nothing fake and that is what he wanted in his pictures.’

But lest you get the impression that Peter Lindbergh was something of a scary, severe taskmaster, Benson is keen to explain that the opposite was true. He made his teams work hard to get the shot, of course, but inspired great affection. ‘As I progressed with the book, I began to wonder if I would ever find anyone who had a bad word to say about Peter,’ says Benson. ‘I didn’t. And he seems to have been a lot of fun. Kate Moss told me that working with Peter was like being on holiday with some photos thrown in!’

Peter Lindbergh: Untold Stories is on until 28 February 2022 in A Coruña, Galicia, Spain