The searcher

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Paolo Roversi is one of the few contemporary photographers whose work is immediately identifiable. The soft focus and slow exposure of his beloved 8×10 camera have become his signature. Apart from the nostalgic and dreamlike elements, there is another, almost unidentifiable quality to his images that even Roversi himself struggles to explain but finds that the word “deeper” is the best possible fit, perhaps unsatisfyingly so. Roversi is now in his fourth decade as a published fashion photographer and his style, largely unchanged since he first started, still commands pages in the most authoritative fashion magazines and provides a welcome break from the hyper-produced images that have become commonplace today.

When I meet Roversi he is in the middle of installing his latest London show at Wapping Bankside gallery. There has been a sudden cold snap and the gallery is arctic. Roversi, dressed very elegantly despite multitudinous layers, tells me warmly as we huddle close to an electric heater, that he loves London’s shops, “Fortnum & Mason, Harrods. Big, classic shops.” When asked if he is fond of his food he answers emphatically, “Oui, oui, oui!,” despite being Italian. Though anxious to oversee the hanging of his pictures for the opening only a few hours away, he is warm, engaging and punctuates the interview with laughter.

What was the moment that first made you realise you wanted to become a photographer?
It happened by chance. I never decided, “I want to be a photographer,”… For sure I wanted to do something to explain myself, to change the world, like every young boy, you know? I was writing poems first and then I tried working in a company theatre as an actor, as a director. And then I started photography during this time. I was a photographer for movies, like a set photographer.

And then photography and I became one. I became more and more a photographer. I started taking portraits of my friends and my family and then a little reportage for the Sicilian press. And then I met two photographers in Italy. They were friends of a painter that I knew and they asked me to come to Paris to visit them and, looking at my pictures, they asked, “Why don’t you come to Paris to work a little bit with us?” So I went to Paris and there I met people working in fashion … Everything was by chance.

What did you think of the fashion world when you first encountered it?
I liked it, I liked it. I really discovered it in Paris, the fashion magazines, the fashion world, the fashion photographers. I knew a little bit before, I knew (Irving) Penn, (Richard) Avedon, the most famous ones, but not really well. And then in Paris I discovered (Helmut) Newton and (Guy) Bourdin. At that moment they were revolutionising the fashion photography there in the ‘70s and voilà!

It was a very exciting time in fashion photography though.
It’s true, it’s true. So then I was attracted and seduced by this world you know and immediately it was interesting for me to try to work in. I was attracted by beauty, by elegance, by all these things.

So had you had any professional training?
I had one in Ravenna, the place where I was born. It was a professional photographer, he was the only one in Ravenna and he was doing architecture photography, theatre, wedding, industrial. He was the only one! He was really professional, he knew a lot of things and he had all the cameras, the big, the small ones. So I really discovered everything with him.

And then I was an assistant for Laurence Sackman, he was working in Paris in the ‘70s. I was assisting him for almost one year, and it was a big, big record because he was a strange man (Roversi laughs). All his assistants were usually working with him for one week, two weeks. But I learnt a lot from Laurence, a real master, such a fantastic photographer. He was so precise and professional, so technical and at the same time so creative, so free in his mind and eyes.

Do you think fashion fuels creativity as much today as it did back then?
It’s different. Today there are so many photographers, so many magazines. I think there is a lot of creativity today of course but it’s different. It was easier to see things, maybe we are lost in all this production, super production. You don’t know any more, who has done what, who is copying the other one, it’s difficult. Where is the Avant-Garde now? It’s confusing today.

Do you think that creatively, fashion photography has reached its apex and is now just carrying on creating more of the same? Or do you think people are still finding new things to do?
No, I think people are still finding new things to do. But you know of course in the beginning of the story of fashion photography it was easier to find new things, now almost everything is done, you can see that. But you can still find a new way to look at things. Like fashion, you can see also in fashion everything is done, one cut again, one shirt, one pair of pants, it’s difficult in fashion for it to look a little bit different. But you can still find a new look, new perfume, a new approach. I think so, anyway the time is moving all the time so I think it’s not finished.

What was your first camera?
My first camera was a little Minolta Hi-Matic 7. I still have it. No, no I’m lying, the first one I had was when I was 8 years old. It was a Ferrania. Ferrania was big brand like Kodak, and it was very famous in Italy. I still have it too, I have all my cameras. I’ve not lost one.

When did you have your first Polaroid camera?
When I arrived in Paris. But the big one, the 8×10, was in 1980 because the film 8×10 Polaroid came out in 1980.

And that is what you use today?
Oui, since 1980 I used that camera! (laughs)

How did you feel when you first took a photo on that? It must have been quite a strong first experience, considering you’ve not used another camera since.
Oui, I enjoyed it since the first moment … how do you say that in English? When you see again and your heart is thump, thump, thump …

Love at first sight?
Voilà. Exactly. But still every time I work with this camera I get emotional. The love is still there. (laughs)

Who were your mentors when you were first starting out?
I have a lot of mentors in photography, not only fashion photographers but also Diane Arbus, Nadar… I never met Diane Arbus, I never met Nadar of course, but I met them through their works and their pictures.

So they were spiritual mentors?
Spiritual mentors, yes. Some of them like Robert Frank or Penn or Avedon, they were also life mentors not only spiritual. Real mentors.

What did you say when you met your heroes like Penn and Avedon?
It was very nice meeting them. With Penn, with Avedon, with Newton, Bourdin, I met them all and it was very nice and very important for me. When Penn said he liked my pictures and he knew my work very well it was the best award – I’ve won some awards in my life – but my best award came from Penn, it really touched me. Same from Avedon you know, because they were my masters. I was surprised that Penn knew my pictures (laughs) he knew them so well and was saying precise critiques or compliments about them, it was touching.

That is the biggest compliment you can have.
Biggest. My biggest medal came from them, I don’t need any more after that.

So once you decided you were going to pursue your career in fashion photography, how did you find your –
(Roversi interrupts) I never decided.

I still have doubts! (laughs)

It’s a little late to be having doubts maybe …
(Laughs again) Maybe, I don’t know.

Ok, how was it you came to discover your signature style? Did you just take a picture and decide, “This is my kind of photograph”?
No, I work in a very spontaneous way. I’m happy when it’s unexpected, when a picture surprises me. I don’t want to close myself in a style or … but of course I have a certain way to work, a certain way to express my feelings so of course a certain style comes out itself. There is no logic really in my work. When I close the door of my studio I leave everything that is rational, rationalistic and logical. I like to be in another world where there is no numbers, no time. One day I remember, one assistant repainted my studio and put a clock just above the door of the studio. I said, “Here is not a place for a clock, it’s another world. ”

And my pictures I think are a little bit timeless, I like that. And because sometimes they look like very old pictures you can’t date them and this I like. No clock, that’s the most important thing. (laughs)

You love working with sunlight and yet you rarely shoot outdoors.
(Roversi pauses to think) That is a tricky question, huh? Because I like the sunlight, but not the sun directly. I like to work in the shadow of the sunlight, I like to work in my studio with a north light window.

The same light that Irving Penn used …
Like Irving, yes, like all the painters. In fact my studio was an atelier for painters made in the ‘30s and it has a huge window facing north and this is the best light for me. So this light I like very much. It defines the contours and has a kind of a mystical approach.

So you like to have sunlight with darkness as well?
I like the borderline, the shadow and the light, the darkness deepens the beauty, you know. I like the ambiguity between the feminine and a little bit masculine. Angelic, but a little bit like a boy. I like to be on the borderline, a little bit lost, to not know where I am, day or night. (laughs)

Fashion is very unforgiving in its constant surge forward. Is it hard for photographers to keep their work relevant to an industry that is always looking for new things?
Maybe when I talk about timeless pictures and then you tell me fashion is moving every day, not every six months, every day! It’s a kind of contradiction in a way. But that’s fashion. Fashion is like a river, it’s just going all the time. It doesn’t stop for one second, the water in front of you. And fashion is the same. But in the same way, it’s the same water, the same river. Do you like this metaphor? (laughs)

Yes, it’s very true, whenever you look back, it’s already changed.
It’s already changed but if you go back the next day, it’s still the same colour as the river.

And what about Guinevere (Van Seenus – Roversi’s long-time muse), what is it about her that has drawn you to her for such a long time?
Guinevere is one of my favourite muses. And I’ve worked with her for more than 20 years. It’s a long time. Guinevere is still the same since the first day I saw her. She is so magic because she has a strong personality, she’s fragile, she’s a child, she’s a woman, all these different faces, different inspiration for me, always inspiring. She has an incredible body language, she can stay in front of the camera like a Greek statue or an Arabic dancer, it’s unbelievable. She can be Egyptian, Indian, she can do what she wants.

She’s magic for me and she has so many levels of beauty coming out from her. She can have a very superficial beauty, very evident, and then she can be a very deep, soulful beauty (Roversi almost whispers), it’s secret. She’s a treasure for me because I can discover things, so I’ll want to take another picture and another. It’s really the mystery of beauty. It’s fantastic. Beauty is a huge mystery, I can’t describe it, so I try to find an image of it.

Did you know the minute you met her that she would be your muse?
Maybe not the minute, but after 15 minutes (laughs). Oui, I knew immediately. My photography’s always a portrait. If I take a picture of this glass, or of this place; it’s a portrait. In my mind I always think; it’s a portrait. It’s always my subject, it’s always eye to eye, even if it’s a glass. It’s a mirror at the same time, so it’s always a little bit autobiographical. Always a little bit of an exchange or reflection, a mirror, you know? So I feel very fast if she’s a good mirror for me and if I can be a good mirror for her. But it’s not just a mirror of course! It’s a big mirror with feelings and sentiments and memories and dreams and narcissism and fragility, many things.

The theme of this issue is Hope. What do you hope for your images?
That’s a good question because I wanted to do a book called Hopes, because for me, every picture that comes to life is hope. Every picture I take is a sign of hope, it’s a gift for me. I think we take a picture and give a picture too, you know? For it’s really a sign of hope for the world. Any image is a little drop in our river of fashion, of life. It’s a little drop but I think every drop is important. Fellini saying in La Strada, I love the movie La Strada, he said even the little stones, the pebbles, are helpful for something. So I think every picture is useful and is a hope.

by Nicola Kavanagh

From the Glass Archive – Glass Magazine – Issue 9 – Hope

About The Author

Glass Magazine editor in chief

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