Peter Lindbergh's best photograph: the birth of the supermodels

They were a revolution fresh, fun, outspoken, poking at you, making edgy jokes, getting involved. Wow!

Liz Tilberis, the editor of British Vogue, asked me to do a shoot. You have to do the January 1990 cover, she said. Youre the one. She wanted something that would preview the decade to come. My reaction was: Oh my God, who could that be? You cant hang the next decade on one face. It wont work. But I knew what would.

This was the result. People always say this shot, this cover, was the birth of the supermodels, but thats not entirely true. Two years before, I shot what were really the first of such pics the white shirt shoots. But that was for American Vogue. At that time, I didnt much like American Vogue. I found the women they were photographing so uninspiring. I preferred girls at art school. They wore tennis shoes and had a purpose. They werent just showing off earrings. American Vogue was uptown, all Bentleys and crocodile-skin handbags. It didnt do it for me. I never went uptown.

Those white-shirt shots ended up in the bin, so I decided to try again. But this time I wanted to go downtown, to SoHo in Manhattan. Are you crazy? they said. Vogue doesnt go downtown. Can you believe that? We shot it there anyway, on Watts Street. It was gritty, the New York I loved.

I first went to the city in the 1970s, when I was about 30. My wife at the time accompanied me she was so overwhelmed, she didnt say a word all week. I remember wondering why brands like DKNY would ask a German schmuck like me to shoot their campaigns. Nobody else sees New York the way you do, theyd reply. New Yorkers dont see the city any more. They dont have your excitement.

The day of the shoot was fun. My makeup artist was due to fly in from Paris on Concorde, but there was a problem with the flight. When the Concorde had a problem, it had to either go on to New York or turn back to Paris, whichever was closer even if it was just by a matter of minutes. At one point, the pilots had to dump fuel and there was kerosene streaming all over the windows. Can you imagine? My makeup artist never made it and we had to scramble to find someone else. I dont remember who, but that shot wasnt about makeup anyway. In terms of actual styling, we tried to hold back as much as possible.

The supermodels were a revolution. There was a freshness to them that stood against the prevailing idea of what a woman was. These girls were outspoken, fun, poking at you, making edgy jokes, getting involved. Linda was always very clear and decisive. Without pushing anyone aside, she would just gravitate to the centre. Tatjana would take a step back and Christy would just stand there, looking beautiful. Naomi was incredible. Id never met anyone like her and havent since.

Liz wanted a cover that announced how the 90s were going to be. So how did it do? K Frasers book, On the Edge: Images from 100 Years of Vogue, opens with 10 spreads, each sporting one decades iconic image. When you get to the supermodels, its like a slap in the face. Wow! you think. Something crazy was happening.

Ive since been asked to recreate this cover for the new generation, but its never felt or looked the same. When people ask me if the supermodels can happen again, I always say no. Women are liberated now, freed from what they had to be, all perfect earrings and perfect makeup.

My idea of beauty has never changed. Its about having the courage to be yourself. I carried on working with these girls even when they became much more famous. My reaction would always be: Take the makeup off. It looks terrible. If one of them said, Oh, I have a contract with Revlon now, I cant go without makeup, my response would be, Why would you sign something as stupid as that?

Perfect features dont make for beauty. Personality does.

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Something crazy was happening Peter Lindbergh Photograph: Peter Lindbergh/Stefan Rappo

Peter Lindberghs CV

Born: Lissa, Poland, 1944.
Trained: Art school in Krefeld, Germany.
Influences: The arts in 1920s and 1930s Germany and Russia, Bauhaus, Kraftwerk, Eisenstein, Rodchenko, Malevich, Kirchner, Pina Bausch, Wim Wenders.
High point: The birth of my first son Benjamin, who is now 36 and runs my studio.
Low point: It will be when I die.
Top tip: Have you ever thought of doing something else?

Substance and Shadow, Peter Lindberghs photographs of Alberto Giacometti sculptures, is at Gagosian London until 22 July.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/jun/14/peter-lindberghs-best-photograph-supermodel-vogue-naomi-campbell-linda-evangelista-christy-turlington