What Peter Lindbergh Taught Me About Feminism in Fashion Photography
Peter Lindbergh, Feminism, & Fashion Photography
I grew up with Vogue Magazine on the coffee table of our suburban home. My feminist mother was always the best-dressed professor at the University where she taught, and she didn’t apologize for her engagement with fashion.
I remember her correcting my pronunciation of Chanel when I was about 11, “it’s SHA-nell, not CHAN-null”, she said, stopping my excitable babble about whatever new thing Vogue had unveiled for me. Years later, I am a fashion photographer, and I think that is in no small part a result of the unspoken permission she gave me to love fashion even when it is problematic.
The Passing of Peter Lindbergh
When I heard yesterday that Vogue photographer Peter Lindbergh had passed, I was surprised how much nostalgia it evoked in me, and news of his death was accompanied by a new-to-me quote:
“If photographers are responsible for creating or reflecting an image of women in society, then, I must say, there is only one way for the future, and this is to define women as strong and independent. This should be the responsibility of photographers today: to free women, and finally everyone, from the terror of youth and perfection.”
Friends who know me well sent me this quote as it made its meme-rounds, knowing these words sound close to things I have said and sincerely meant. My reaction to it was strong, an overwhelming sense of, “How is this older man doing a better job talking about my responsibilities to my gender than I am, a young-ish woman?”
While the feminist in me does not particularly like the fact that Lindbergh is saying he can “define” women for better or for worse, he’s not wrong. Photographers decide what is seen and valued.
We make choices every day that shape how others perceive things. We have a say in posing, location, and styling. We choose the models, angles, and lighting. All of these elements might inform your final reaction to the woman you see, and if the image is meaningful, you might carry her with you in your mind.
Responsibility as a Photographer
Decisiveness is something I teach as a photography educator. I often say, “You are responsible; you make the call.” All of those images you see in magazines and advertising? Someone, a flesh and blood person decided that was a reflection of current culture. It doesn’t rain down from the heavens.
I ask that my students start to consider the story being told by each of the elements they use to create an image. After today I’ll be adding: "Be the one that decides that women are strong and independent."
Who else knows the beautiful things about femininity? What it feels like to be in a beautiful piece of clothing? How fun the costume-nature of makeup and beauty can be? And in contrast, who else knows what it is to be cognizant of our body and clothes at all times? What it feels like to be rejected because our beauty lies outside societal standards?
Feminism in Photography
I so wish we were done. Here is where I will push beyond what is comfortable for me and possibly some readers: female photographers have an even greater responsibility, not because of patriarchal conspiracy, but because we know the female experience.
If we are, as Lindbergh says, “reflecting an image of women in society”, then who else knows women better than other women?
Moving forward, it will be difficult to push against what the industry has been putting out for decades, but I think there’s room for female photographers to use that insider experience to add authenticity and texture to the photo-story being told about feminism, women, their bodies, and their relationship with their own image.
Some of us have been reflecting the male experience with women’s imagery for too long - I say “some of us” intentionally because I include myself, and also there are many many female photographers out there working daily towards the very goal of better representation of women. And YET, the story of mainstream fashion photography is not only inaccurate, it creates palpable terror (as Lindbergh so memorably states) in the women that appear in front of the camera- my camera.
I can see a model’s expression change while she lists her flaws that I cannot objectively see and did not ask for a catalog of. I struggle to explain to her that ten years of photographing models later, I have yet to meet someone perfect.
A Photographer's Decisions Matter
Only a few hours after Peter Lindbergh’s death, I now have a new charge to all photographers: is the image of women you are deciding to make, one you think your daughters and granddaughters will recognize as strong and independent? Is your image one that will alleviate some of that “terror or youth and perfection” Lindbergh brought to our attention? I know for a fact I often fall short of this charge, which is precisely why I am so excited by it.
Peter Lindbergh will be sorely missed.
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