5 Lessons to Learn from Peter Lindbergh’s Models: The Film

Twenty-five years ago, master photographer Peter Lindbergh took to documentary filmmaking for the first time with Models: The Film, an inside look at the lives of some of the most famous models in the world at the time: Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Stephanie Seymour, and Tatjana Patitz.

He and his crew followed them around on a variety of different photoshoots, seeking to understand their role in both beauty and culture. The resulting documentary is a stunning, black-and-white film that not only cements the models in a place in time, but is an elegant work of visual composition. As occasionally happens when photographers get behind a motion picture camera and not just a still one, each frame itself becomes a photograph (the same is true for Bert Stern’s masterful Jazz on a Summer’s Day.) You can watch Models: The Film below, and as we celebrate the film’s 25th anniversary of shooting this year, here are five important lessons to learn from it.

1. Embrace the gray area.

Just as with life, not everything in photography is or should be black and white. While Lindbergh is known for his gorgeously contrasting images, he also embraces the area in between, and this film is no exception. In it, light isn’t necessarily always white; it’s often gray. Remember there’s not only one answer in your image-making: sometimes perfectly lit is boring, and the way light falls naturally can be a beautifully humanizing, grounding detail. Experiment and see what works for you as a photographer, but once you do…

2. Know your vision well and hold onto it.

Another really wonderful detail of Models: The Film is how Lindbergh makes a clear decision at the beginning of the film of how he wants to tell it both visually and narratively, and this carries throughout the entire documentary. He is an observer of beauty in its natural habitat, a curious onlooker hoping to understand. This point of view is present in every frame, from his closeups on each of the models to the way he interacts with them in group settings. We understand what he wants to know and why he looks at the models the way he does. This is an important conceptual asset to take with you as you go about shooting not just single projects, but your entire body of work: what do you notice you are perpetually drawn to, and why? How are you drawn to it? What is your relationship to the subject? How do you want to tell your subject’s story, and are you doing that in all of your work? Lindbergh’s vision carries not just through the film but through his decades-long body of work: based on experience and experimentation, he knows how he wants to look at a subject and then translates those thoughts into images.

3. Challenge your eye.

What Lindbergh does really well in the film is he looks at these supermodels in a way nobody really had before. This is one of the reasons the film was so critically acclaimed when it first came out. Lindbergh showed them relatively unedited, living real lives, thinking real thoughts. He showed an audience something new and challenged himself to look at these subjects who were photographed so often in a new way. What could he bring to the table, what story could he tell that nobody had told yet? This is something you can practice with any often-photographed subject, be it a person, an object, or a place. How can you show an audience something new?

4. Retell the familiar.

In the opening and closing credits of the film, Lindbergh uses black and white shots of New York’s neon lights to introduce a sense of loneliness, hope, and mystery. He also uses shots of the wet pavement and parking lots lit at later hours to share a similar feeling. There are certain kinds of images in our culture that impart a certain kind of feeling, and when we see them, we understand the emotion they’re trying to impart. But there’s a way to elicit those feelings in your viewer while showing them something new. Challenge yourself not to rely on nostalgia, but to create new experiences that offer similar feelings. Find new ways to share familiar stories.

5. Remember the moment.

What has always been wonderful about Lindbergh’s images, and really of any successful images, is that they capture a moment that’s very much of the time but in a timeless way. The style of the image doesn’t age even if its subject does. In Models: The Film, Lindbergh’s signature black and white doesn’t just capture the supermodels in one of their career peaks, it remembers them naturally, without any extra trendy additions. If you have a clear vision as a photographer and operate within your own standards, not just the flash or trends of the era, then your images have a greater chance of standing the test of time as Lindbergh’s have. By all means experiment, but remember who you are, remember what you’re looking at and how you want to preserve it forever, and think about if in 25 years that hot new photo tactic will really have been worth it. Or, as Lindbergh himself said a few years ago, “A fashion photographer should contribute to defining the image of the contemporary woman or man in their time, to reflect a certain social or human reality. How surrealistic is today’s commercial agenda to retouch all signs of life and of experience, to retouch the very personal truth of the face itself?”

Elyssa Goodman