Is Peter Lindbergh the world's greatest fashion photographer? Ian Phillips met him - and thinks the answer may be yes

HE IS Tina Turner's favourite photographer. Donna Karan says he is "part of the family", and supermodel Nadja Auermann asserts that "he always makes you feel like you're the most beautiful woman in the world". Ever since Peter Lindbergh took up fashion photography in the late Seventies, he has had an immense impact not only on the genre, but on fashion itself.

He has worked for all the top magazines, shot ad campaigns for Armani, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Jil Sander, and filmed perfume commercials full of gorgeous actresses (Sophie Marceau, Isabella Rossellini, Daryl Hannah) for Guerlain, Lancome and Karl Lagerfeld. He was the first photographer to bring together Linda and Naomi and Tatjana and Christy on one shoot, so kickstarting the whole supermodel phenomenon. And he is even credited with giving Linda Evangelista's career second wind by persuading her to cut her hair short (for the record, he very sensibly thinks the hype around the cut was "totally ridiculous. It was not like redefining the world or something").

A number of blown-up images of Evangelista adorn the walls of Lindbergh's Paris studio, where, dressed casually in a denim shirt, chinos and brown suede loafers, Lindbergh is on the phone. He is explaining to somebody who Jean-Loup Sieff is: "the most famous French photographer". It is the middle of haute couture week in Paris, but Lindbergh has for once decided to stay well clear of the shows. In a few days time he is off for a month's holiday in Ibiza, and is too busy working on two personal projects to watch posh frocks go past on a catwalk.

The first project is a large retrospective of his work to be held at Berlin's Hamburger Bahnhof museum - the museum's first temporary exhibition since its inauguration last year. The second is also a retrospective - but this time in the form of a book, the 300-page Images of Women. This is quite simply stunning, its exquisite photographs revealing every ounce of Lindbergh's genius. According to Comme des Garcons' designer Rei Kawakubo: "What is strong about Peter's work is the humanity inherent in his photographs. What you notice is not just the models and the clothes, but the strength of the people themselves." Donna Karan agrees. "There is always something more than just a fashion picture," she says. "In a single image, you feel you really know that person." Indeed, some of the most powerful images in the book are closely cropped head-shots in which you can almost see into the soul of the sitter.

Realistic, grainy, black and white images are generally what spring to mind when Lindbergh's name is mentioned. However, Lindbergh refutes the idea that they are his trademark. "I don't have a style and I try not to have one," he insists, "because afterwards it's difficult to get away from." He does, however, admit that in his photos "the woman is always more important than the clothes". He generally chooses bleak locations, insists that hair and make-up are unfussy and that his subjects look extremely natural. "He is the stylist's nightmare," claims Tina Turner. "He likes natural and simple clothes, and when stylists bring along racks and racks of high-fashion clothes, he always asks if they have a white shirt and jeans."

The only photo of Turner which makes it into Images of Women is one of her legs. There is also a wonderful photo of Nastassja Kinski's torso and celebrity shots of Pamela Anderson, Antonio Banderas and Joaquin Cortes. However, most of the images are of the handful of models with whom Lindbergh's career is most closely associated. There is Amber Valletta as a Marlene Dietrich look-alike and with angel wings in the streets of New York. There is Naomi clowning around as a modern-day Josephine Baker, and Linda Evangelista flying through the air of a grimy Manhattan street. There are also perhaps his most famous images - those featuring models posing on the beaches of northern France and in industrial locations.

Both settings recall Lindbergh's childhood in Germany's Ruhr Valley. He was born in East Germany in 1944, but was brought up on his uncle's sheep farm overlooking the mining town of Duisburg. Family holidays were spent on the windswept beaches of Holland. Peter spent every spare minute playing handball. "I went to training every evening," he says. "That was the one thing I was thinking of." He claims that as a child he didn't even know what photography was; when he left school at the age of 15 he became a window dresser in a local department store. "This may sound odd, but I thought that was the greatest job," he laughs.

However, his outlook changed after military service. He started taking art classes in Berlin, but soon left and hitched his way around the South of France, Spain and Morocco. After returning to Germany, he enrolled in art school in Krefeld, had his first personal exhibition in 1969 and was all set to become an artist when his brother persuaded him that the work he was producing was "really boring". By then, he was already 27 and, strange as it may seem, had still not picked up a camera. He slipped into the profession more or less by accident. "A photographer's assistant place came up through a friend," he remembers. "If there had been another job I would have become something else."

Within a few years Lindbergh was Germany's highest-paid advertising photographer, the man behind the first print campaign for the VW Golf. His first fashion photos were published in 1978, in the German magazine Stern; the result was a flood of requests from fashion editors around the world, impressed by the pictures' spontaneity and almost documentary feel. In the early Eighties, based in Paris, he shot a number of campaigns for Comme des Garcons (typically grainy studio shots with brooding models and dramatic lighting effects) which placed him firmly at the top of his profession.

If he is still there, it is not only due to his talent. It is also in large part because of both his commitment - Lindbergh seems to have little time for anything other than work - and personality. "There is nobody, and I mean nobody, who is better to work with than Peter," says Donna Karan. "He's warm, he's caring, he's funny. He really loves people and he really loves what he does." Karan's vice president of advertising and creative services, Trey Laird, agrees. "I would fall down backwards if anyone ever said: `Oh, I met Peter Lindbergh and he was such a jerk'."

I'd agree. Our interview was due to last an hour. When it was finally interrupted after nearly two hours by a dinner engagement with Franca Sozzani, the editor of Italian Vogue, Lindbergh suggested that I come back later - ie after midnight. We eventually end up chatting until 2.15am. And what was most striking about him was that he seemed to be completely devoid of ego - a quality not generally associated with the fashion world. "He's very Zen and balanced," asserts Nadja Auermann. "He's never angry, never nervous. He never speaks to anybody in a bad tone, even in a difficult situation."

Lindbergh says that the key to building up this rapport with his sitters is to "get over any kind of attitude. Problems are all made by attitude." He is also famously adaptable. For last year's Donna Karan shoot with Demi Moore and Bruce Willis, he shot in three different locations - an aircraft hangar in Los Angeles, the set of GI Jane in Florida and the Willis's garage in Idaho - on consecutive days. Auermann remembers one shoot in Morocco when a wind storm prevented them from shooting outside. Lindbergh simply set up a makeshift studio in the restaurant of the hotel. When an editor could not afford to pay for a shoot he wanted to do with a model and an extraterrestrial, Lindbergh simply put up the pounds 5,000 to create the "Martian suit" himself. The resulting pictures are Lindbergh's favourites and he already has plans to include them in his next book. He feels, however, that his best pictures are still ahead of him. "I have no idea how they are going to look," he says. "But you always feel that everything could be better."

Looking at Images of Women, you wonder just how.

! `Peter Lindbergh: Images of Women' (Schirmer Mosel, pounds 70) is out tomorrow. An exhibition of the same name is at Hamilton's Gallery, W1 (0171 499 9493), from Tues to 25 Oct.

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