At the foot of Montmartre, in a darkened room behind a rather nondescript gate covered in graffiti, photographer Peter Lippmann and his team are circling intently around a vase that sits atop a French Empire dresser, bursting with fresh flowers. Amid the fallen petals, leaves and various worn and weathered leather-bound books that have been placed on the dresser’s marble top, a glittery, bronze-colored Christian Louboutin clutch leans at an upright angle. It has been positioned subtly within the scene—its edge hides slightly behind the vase, and its tone elegantly echoes the patina and gilded edges of the aged books surrounding it. Its twinkling reflection gently shimmers upon the dresser’s highly polished surface. Lippmann’s assistant, Quentin Reytinas, moves around the set making miniscule adjustments to the tangle of lights, stands and reflectors that surround the delicate arrangement. Simultaneously, Marie Noelle Perriau, the set designer for today’s shoot, intermittently inches and twists the flowers, books and floral debris this way and that, so that they rest in just the right place. Occasionally she digs out one of the studio’s Sennelier pastels (originally used by artists such as Edgar Degas and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec) from an old Kodak Ektachrome 4" x 5" film box and smudges the sky-blue wallpaper backdrop in such a way that its pattern appears painterly, as if it’s slowly evaporating. Meanwhile, Lippmann himself quietly moves back and forth between the viewfinder of his Hasselblad H4D 200-MS and a grid of monitors, where each ultra high-resolution test frame instantly appears onscreen, allowing him to study every aspect of the photograph and then direct the others in their long and meticulous journey toward a finished image.
Over the course of the last three decades, Peter Lippmann has established himself as one of the most sought-after advertising and still life photographers of his generation, working regularly with clients including Cartier, Audemars Piguet and Hasselblad, and publications such as Vogue, Marie Claire, the New York Times and Le Figaro. Lippmann is currently in the midst of working on the upcoming Spring/Summer 2014 Collection lookbook for Christian Louboutin—a collaboration that Lippmann instigated, developed and has been heavily involved in for more than five years. Rather than engaging in traditional advertising strategies, the French shoe and bag designer publishes a luxuriously crafted look-book each season featuring a themed portfolio of seven photographs by Lippmann, which is printed and pack-aged beautifully (one season Lippmann’s prints were wrapped in a Louboutin-signature-red silk ribbon), and distributed directly to his clientele. Often the themes of these portfolios riff on art-historical refer-ences. A 2011 series entitled Women of History, which won Lippmann both an International Photo Award and an Association of Photographers Award, featured an image of “Whistler’s Mother” holding a silver-spiked black lace stiletto boot that matched her outfit, as well as a portrait of Lippmann’s own daughter posing as the Marquise d’Antin, as depicted in a 1738 painting by Jean-Marc Nattier. The 2014 series takes its inspiration from various floral still lifes by the impressionists and post-impressionists. The photograph at hand echoes Camille Pissarro’s 1873 Bouquet of Flowers, and in the studio’s courtyard, several wilting sunflowers poking out of a garbage bag hint at an image made earlier in the week based on a Vincent van Gogh. In fact, in the studio offices just a floor below, Patrick Toulmond—the masterful digital retoucher with whom Lippmann has worked since 1996, when digital imaging was in its infancy—sits alongside two other technicians in an arched and windowless recess, fine-tuning each ochre, chrome and cadmium detail of the van Gogh-inspired image, pixel by pixel.
During a short break in the shoot, Lippmann comes downstairs, peers over Toulmond’s shoulder, discusses the image’s progress with him in rapid French and marvels at the scene before him. “When I started out, it used to take me a week to make one picture: Polaroid after Polaroid, exposure after exposure, adjusting every little detail, you know? In order to be a good photographer, you really needed to be a good technician,” Lippmann says. “I still love that side of photography, I even love retouching, but I don’t have the time to do it myself anymore. So now I’ve got three technicians sitting here in a cave. The technology has become the easy part, not just for me, for everyone. And that means that today, in order to be a good photographer, it’s not just about technique anymore; it’s really about ideas and vision.”
As suggested by Lippmann’s slightly drawling Tri-state accent and his seemingly laid-back yet charmingly acerbic aging-rock-star manner, he was born in New York and raised in New Jersey, although he has lived in Paris for more than 30 years. His background is far from conventional. “My dad was French; he worked for Chanel and was originally sent over to New York by them,” Lippmann explains. “Then later, he became the vice president of Dior perfumes in America. But he commuted an hour on the train to New York each day, so even though I was kind of aware of what he did, we pretty much grew up in the woods, which was great.” Lippmann received a BA in journalism from Allegheny College in 1977, and after a short stint as the editor-in-chief of two local Pennsylvania newspapers—the Linesville Herald and the Conneaut Lake Breeze—he moved to Paris. Not long after his arrival, he ended up landing an assisting job with the acclaimed still life photographer Detlef Trefz through the family that he was working for as an au pair. Six intense months later, he left Trefz’s studio with a clear understanding of not simply the technical skills, but the commitment, diligence and dedication required of a successful photographer, and he eagerly began to build his own career.
Early on, the prominent and highly influential food magazine Gault Millau started to commission Lippmann, occasionally asking him to shoot nearly every photograph for an entire issue. Exquisite food photography was his primary focus from the early 1980s until 2002, when Cartier Art first approached him and gave him complete freedom over a two-page spread featuring Cartier jewelry. Although his career has evolved and diversified dramatically since, Lippmann still occasionally photographs food, and traces of this culinary-focused past remain very evident throughout both his work and life. He often incorporates the saturated richness, intensity and seductive nature of food to emphasize those same qualities within jewelry, fashion and accessories: the pearl of an earring is poised perfectly in the midst of a glistening and succulent oyster shell; the deep red ruby at the heart of a dazzling scarab brooch shimmers alongside the seeds of an overripe pomegranate that has been smashed beneath it; a hungry grizzly bear interrupts an elegant riverside picnic and scatters luscious fruits, carafes of wine and Louboutin heels everywhere. Furthermore, Lippmann recently partnered with several close friends to open Semilla, a hip and bustling restaurant just off Saint Germain des Prés. Eric Trochon, a renowned chef who was awarded the title of Meilleurs Ouvriers de France in 2011 and has frequently styled Lippmann’s shoots over the years, heads the kitchen. Even on a daily basis, Lippmann takes food very seriously. During shoots he and his entire team always gather around a large table in the studio’s kitchen for an hour or so and, like an extended family, enjoy an elaborate spread of the best meats, cheeses, breads and produce that Paris has to offer. Scoffing at the idea of eating a ready-made sandwich in front of a computer screen at work, Lippmann simply explains, “This is France, we sit down together to eat.”
As is so often experienced through great food, the meeting of highly sophisticated techniques and powerful, yet transient, visceral pleasures is what lies at the heart of Lippmann’s own ideas and vision, and is expressed most acutely in his personal work. On two small balconies at the back of his studio stand several tables covered with rotting apples, moldy lemons, sunken tomatoes, shriveled grapes, withering figs, wilting leaves and more, material that Lippmann collects in the French countryside and then allows to decay for the purposes of his ongoing series Noble Rot. “My artwork is always involved with the same themes,” he explains. “The passing of time, living, aging, an obsession with both the shortness and the long-ness of life, all the wrinkles that come with it … and then the beauty that can be found in all of these things.”
Ultimately, this is exactly what drives Lippmann to excel in his work. “I feel like I have three roads that I take in my photography. One is the advertising road, which follows someone else’s directions, but they come to me for a certain type of interpretation and sensitivity. Then there’s the personal road, which is just kind of free and open. And then there’s the road between the two, like the Louboutin and Cartier projects and other magazine work, which have a lot of freedom, but also some interesting constraints.
“Whatever the case,” says Lippmann, “all I try to think about is if it’s exciting and challenging. A lot of guys get to a point where they can start resting on their laurels. When you start making money and having some success, it’s very easy to sit back. You’ve got to be kind of a weirdo to keep going. But I feel really lucky to be pretty devoted; to have a need to do this nine or ten hours a day. You have to want to do that—you have to have a need to do it. It reminds me of the beauty in everything; it reminds me that I’m alive.” ca