Two exhibitions this weekend have restored my faith in the idea of the white wall gallery as a place to see photography, and see it in a new way. This is the first: Peter Lindbergh’s 30-year retrospective at the Gagosian Gallery’s discreetly luxurious Project Space in le huitieme.
The exhibition is spread over two floors. Downstairs is a series of prints, each more than a metre high. Upstairs, two rooms of iconic images from 1988 (a giggling Naomi Campbell, nude but for armfuls of Berber bangles) to 2013 (Cara Delevingne, lying on a scruffy rug with an ashtray and a glass of wine on the floor nearby.) There are all the iconic faces and bodies: Linda Evangelista blowing smoke rings; Amber Valletta wearing lumpy angel wings; Milla Jovovich emerging from darkness like a furious modern-day Valkyrie.
Influenced by early German and East European cinema and photography, and by his “good friend” Wim Wenders, Peter Lindbergh’s work is all about darkness: the darkness of the soul, of the human condition, of the mad, bad world we live in – and of beauty emerging from the dark. His compositions are simple and minimalist, but his tones are rich and intense – fifty shades of black, and counting. The huge scale of the prints in the first part of this exhibition forces the viewer into the photographs, and there is no distraction elsewhere in the gallery.
Lindbergh doesn’t believe in retouching, and these prints are quite raw. The models have bad skin. Their makeup is starting to rub off. Eva Herzigova and Nadja Auermann have watery eyes. There is blur. None of the images in this exhibition is a classical fashion shot. The one that’s closest is the iconic group of supers in their clunky Versace motorcycle boots and leather jackets, standing about rather awkwardly in a deserted street, and even that is more about the weather than the clothes.
In these photographs, Lindbergh’s subjects get no help from conventional props (clothes, makeup). And yet their fierceness and the photographer’s intense feeling for them shines out.
The trouble with photography exhibitions is how often they manage to wreck a great set of images by displaying them badly. Too many photography exhibitions cram in too much stuff. Framing is a nightmare. The information displayed alongside the works is intrusive or idiotic, or just irritating. And I’m not talking about amateur art shows here – major galleries in London and Paris get it wrong as often as they get it right.
It’s one reason why a great photography book can often beat an exhibition.
This, however, is a perfect exhibition.
Peter Lindbergh, Gagosian Gallery Project Space, Paris (September 10 – November 22)
© Fiona Hayes 2014