Glass meets Gian Paolo Barbieri – the legendary forefather of fashion photography


BORN in 1938 in the elegant city of Milan, Gian Paolo Barbieri has experienced – and lived – the real life and glamour of the dolce vita. His family were wealthy fabric wholesalers, but Barbieri eschewed the traditional family business, although his early experience and knowledge of fabrics would later serve well him in the fashion industry. Instead, he set his sights on making it in film. Coming of age at the height of the golden era of Italian cinema in the 1960s and ‘70s, Barbieri found himself at its epicentre – Cinecittà, the legendary film studio in Rome, through a combination of fate and sheer determination.

Here, Barbieri began to win small roles alongside such stars as Alain Delon, Sophia Loren and even his childhood icon, Ava Gardner. But it was while at Cinecittà, taking photographs of rising stars between acting jobs in order to survive, that Barbieri discovered his true calling, photography. His photographs of aspiring divas earned him considerable attention and he was soon offered an apprenticeship with renowned Harper’s Bazaar photographer Tom Kublin in Paris – with whom he spent an “excruciating” two months. This would be the start of his career in fashion, but cinema would remain his great inspiration. The stars of his beloved film noir became the muses of his fashion photography, and it’s no surprise that his work has been compared to the cinematic style of his boyhood idol, Italian film director Federico Fellini (La Dolce Vita, 1960).

Barbieri was there at the very beginning of fashion photography as we know it. He photographed the first ever cover of Vogue Italia in 1965 and was recognised in 1978 by German magazine Stern as one of the inventors of the discipline – an honour that he considers one of the main highlights of his career. And in a career that includes working with Hollywood stars from Audrey Hepburn to Sophia Loren and designers like Valentino, Yves Saint Laurent and Armani, choosing highlights is no mean feat.

Barbieri has also gone on to become a highly respected reportage photographer for his personal projects documenting indigenous peoples in exotic landscapes around the world. But even his travel photographs, which have been published as books and exhibited around the world, are intrinsically cinematic and feature situations created and directed by Barbieri, similar to the way that he directed the original supermodels Jerry Hall or Veruschka in his Milan studio.

It is in his studio that we find him, affable and relaxed, and generous with his time. In this interview Gian Paolo Barbieri talks about his life, photography, inspiration and career of a star that he is.

Gian Paolo Barbieri by Hermes MereghettiGian Paolo Barbieri by Hermes Mereghetti

Why did you become a fashion photographer?
It was by accident really. I was in Rome, starving, trying to make my way in cinema. My dream was to be at Cinecittà. I met Gustave Zumsteg, the head of Fabrics Abraham, who created all of the fabrics for haute couture in Paris. He noticed the pictures I was taking of the extras in Cinecittà and he said that I was perfect for fashion photography. At that time, fashion wasn’t established yet in Italy and I honestly told him I did not know what fashion was. Thanks to his recommendation I went to Paris, where I became first assistant to Tom Kublin over the fashion season, 20 days in total. It was very hard. I learnt everything during this time since it has been my only apprenticeship. Unfortunately, Tom died soon after.

Jerry Hall, Versace, 1975Jerry Hall, Versace, 1975, by Gian Paolo Barbieri

Did you find that 20 days were enough to learn everything you needed?
Absolutely. At the time, the experience with Kublin provided me with the basic skills required for a job I didn’t know at all. I learnt everything else as I went, and my passion did the rest.

What was Tom Kublin like as a teacher?
He was a very critical and finicky teacher. He demanded from us, his assistants, maximum perfection. For instance, if we ruined a backdrop by folding it or by causing even the palest mark, we would have to get a new one at our own expense. At the time, we would work mostly at night as most buyers were based in the US and we had to consider the time zone. It wasn’t easy to keep up with such a hectic pace. As I was working at night, I had only a few hours during the day left to rest.

Audrey Hepburn in Valentino, Vogue Italia, Rome, 1969Audrey Hepburn in Valentino, Vogue Italia, Rome, 1969, by Gian Paolo Barbieri

What were some of your first jobs as a photographer?
I remember Grace Coddington, American Vogue’s fashion editor at the time, with whom I worked a lot while in Paris. My very first fashion shoot was commissioned by Naka, a knitwear factory from Casalino that presented their samples in Florence, mainly for American clients.

Did you find it easy to find paid work, or were photographers expected to start out working for free like they are now?
When I started off, the salary process in the industry was very well defined and clear. Every work was properly paid. Price discounts were common, but I’ve always expected to get paid for my work.

Anjelica Hustin for Valention, 1972Angelica Houston by Gian Paolo Barbieri

You always wanted to be an actor.
As a young boy trying to find his way into an industry he loves, you don’t really have your mind set. You are somehow confident that time would give you the answer on which job suits you best.

What attracted you to the world of cinema and its stars?
I don’t know exactly. It’s something that you have inside. When I was a child, my brother took me to the movies and for me it was like Christmas. Visconti, Rossellini, Pasolini – all the Italian neorealists heavily influenced me, as well as American cinema with the film Citizen Kane by Orson Welles, which anticipated the expressive style of the noir genre. In striking black and white, Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth and Lana Turner became legendary stars of seduction. So when I grew up, I was already attached to that world. At that time I used photography to understand how the biggest stars of cinema were illuminated.Monica Bellucci for Dolce & Gabbana, Milan, 2000Monica Bellucci for Dolce & Gabbana, Milan, 2000 by Gian Paolo Barbieri

What were some of your acting jobs?
Purple Noon by René Clément, starring Marie Laforêt and Alain Delon – that was my debut as an actor, with a small part. Also my friends and I were producing movies ourselves, mostly imitations of films like Tobacco Road, a piece of musical Sunset Boulevard and even a biopic of Toulouse-Lautrec’s life. I made an appearance in The Angel Wore Red starring Ava Gardner and It Started in Naples starring Sophia Loren, and many others that I don’t recall.

Why did you leave acting?
It was the destiny I think. Maybe my cinema experiences were enough to teach me the basics to start creating my own light.

charlotte-rampling-wearing-bulgari-vogue-america-1974Charlotte Rampling wearing Bulgari for Vogue America, 1974, by by Gian Paolo Barbieri

What would you say are the main differences between working as a photographer in the 1960s and 70s as opposed to now?
People’s behaviour has changed, especially in Italy, where fashion has had a big success and become powerful. This brought the interest of craft and inventiveness to give way to very huge scale industrialisation. It’s a fact that people who used to collaborate for creativity without profits now think differently; they think now about merchandising and commerce. Fashion itself and women’s shape and figure have completely changed. What fashion used to be in the past, has now disappeared.

Your career as a photographer is fascinating. But what are some of your personal career highlights?
It’s not easy to choose. My career was full of important moments. For example, when I was still a student I was already doing photos and movies, so one day when I expected my mother to go out of Milan I took the opportunity to transform the living room into a miserable filthy hut – I needed to set a scene of the film Tobacco Road. My mother came home early, opened the door, looked inside and retreated without saying anything. Later I heard her say on the phone to a friend, “It was so nice that I did not dare say anything.” Then when in 1978, Stern magazine catalogued me as one of the 14 photographers who invented fashion photography. When Diana Vreeland offered me a nine month contract with American Vogue, which I refused. And when Avedon wanted to meet me and told me that he was my fan and that he collected my pictures.

Christiana Steidnten, French Vogue, Seychelles, 1975Christiana Steidnten, French Vogue, Seychelles, 1975,  by Gian Paolo Barbieri

Why did you refuse Diana Vreeland’s offer?
I found living in New York very tough for my attitude. And I hated being that far from my family for such a long time. I was very shy and I also didn’t trust my English that much. Actually, living in Italy perfectly suited me. But I didn’t stop working for Diana; she kept on commissioning me for work I was doing here in Italy. I still keep a wonderful memory of her. She was an extraordinary person. She never stopped sending me her regards even after she left Vogue.

How was it when you actually started photographing big movie stars? What were they like?
Shooting with celebrities was easy, since they all had strong personalities and they were all experienced and creative. They were all very cultured. I’ve noticed a huge kindness and willingness in all of them, ready to collaborate. Audrey Hepburn shocked me when she brought her slippers to my studio, so as not to mark my backdrop.

Versace, 1978Versace, 1978, by Gian Paolo Barbieri

How did you start collaborating with designers like Valentino and Armani?
They got in touch with me to collaborate. I was in the early days of my career in fashion and my works caught their attention. I was very lucky to work with the biggest Italian fashion designers. It helped me a lot and I built good relationships with all of them.

As there were no fashion editors and stylists at the beginning of your career, you had to do the styling yourself, is that right? Where did you source inspiration for your narratives, settings and styling?
That’s right, I did it all by myself. There was nobody to tell you what to do, so the creativity was at 100 per cent. Nowadays it’s very difficult to work because there are too many people involved in a shoot. And everybody has something to say. It’s not easy to find the opportunity to express your creativity. That’s why I try to work constantly on my personal projects.

Tatiana Savialova per Valentino, 1996Tatiana Savialova per Valentino, 1996, by Gian Paolo Barbieri

You redefined the modern concept of fashion advertising. How did you do that and what inspired you to do so?
I never intended to redefine fashion advertising. I did what I felt like doing. My interest in art certainly helped me a lot.

Do you work in any specific way? Do you have a process?
The moment I get a job, I start thinking immediately. Some nights I don’t even sleep. I wake up in the middle of the night with ideas. I make a lot of research, mostly in art, movies and nature.

Tahiti, 1989Tahiti, 1989, by  Gian Paolo Barbieri

What compelled you to become a travel photographer later on?
When fashion photography took the train out of Italy, I felt a little out of place. But I thought that a photographer must be able to do all kinds of photography. So I decided to start travelling and creating several books. I started with Madagascar, Tahiti Tattoos and Equator – the sea trilogy. Reportage photography is very difficult. I thought about working outdoors with natural light and creating situations myself, thinking like in my studio. Obviously I had to go against an infinite number of difficulties, but overcame them thanks to my past experience and my determination.

How was it different for you from being a fashion photographer?
Fashion photography taught me to be precise. Along with my creativity, I applied the same principle to my ethnic photography. I could recreate the same ‘fashion mood’ in these reportage situations.

Experimentations, Seychelles 1999Experimentations, Seychelles 1999,  Gian Paolo Barbieri

There is often a link made between the style of your photographs and Federico Fellini’s film La Dolce Vita. Do you agree that there is a similarity?
I was certainly influenced by the lifestyle in those years. And Fellini is, of course, one of my biggest inspirations. You cannot help but be influenced by the period in which you live.

Have you ever met Fellini personally?
No, I did not meet him, only by fleeting encounters. I would have loved to meet him.

What is the biggest lesson you have learnt in life?

 by Sara Hesikova

From the Glass Archive – Issue 26 – Longevity


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