Italian born Paolo Roversi has lived in Paris since 1972; for the past 40 years he has been, with little debate, one of the most important, influential, independent and in-demand photographers working within the fashion industry and still is today. A long time…. admirer of his work, Grant Scott, caught up with him recently to shoot the breeze and find out how he has remained so true to his creative vision despite the corporate pressures of the commercial world.
Born in Ravenna, Italy, in 1947, Paolo Roversi’s interest in photography was ignited as a teenager during a family vacation in Spain in 1964. On returning home he set up a darkroom in a convenient cellar with another keen amateur – the local postman – and began developing and printing his own black-and-white work. His subsequent meeting with a local professional photographer proved hugely important, as he spent hours in the photographer’s studio receiving what was to prove an invaluable apprenticeship. In 1970 he started working with the Associated Press and opened, with his friend Giancarlo Gramantieri, his first portrait studio, in his home town.
It was in 1971, after a chance meeting with Peter Knapp, the legendary art director of ELLE magazine, that his career as a fashion photographer began. Knapp invited him to visit Paris, and he has remained there ever since. After an intensive spell of assisting the British photographer Lawrence Sackmann, Roversi started out on his own with small jobs for magazines such as ELLE and Depeche Mode, until Marie Claire published his first major fashion story.
A Christian Dior beauty campaign brought him wider recognition in 1980; the year he started using the 8x10in Polaroid format that would become his trademark. In the mid-1980s the fashion industry started to produce fashion catalogues with extremely high production and creative values, and Roversi began working on these for brands such as Comme des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto and Romeo Gigli. The Paolo Roversi image was established and his work has continued to be in constant demand. Today, Paolo Roversi is one of the leading fashion photographers in the world.
Grant: Paolo, I wanted to talk to you about your very personal visual language, which you seemed to develop very early on in your career. Were you aware that you were doing that?
Paolo: You know, it is not a thing that you can control or decide upon. It happened really after working day after day, picture after picture. Some people talk of a style, or a vision, or interpretation of the photographer. I have always tried to work in a very honest way; very spontaneous, very fresh; and then the pictures come from a sort of super conscience. The work comes from my roots, the iconography of my childhood, all those things. Where I grew up was very foggy in the winter; there were Byzantine mosaics. I don’t know. All these influences come into my work.
Grant: You’re working within a commercial context and yet your creative vision and language has remained pure and personal.
Paolo: That’s right [laughs]. I try, you know. It’s true, but fashion photography is always a commission, which comes with certain constraints and limits.
Grant: But that voice, which you found early in your career, defines what a Paolo Roversi picture looks like. I think that is one of the hardest things for a photographer to do; to find their voice.
Paolo: Yes, every artist wants to explain themselves, and it is hard to find the voice to do so. Plus, when it is a commission, you have to explain yourself and seduce your client, and this is very difficult because you want to be sincere and they also need to like what you do, and this is not simple [laughs]. But you know, from the beginning I learned that not everybody can like what you do. You just have to accept this.
Grant: To me there are two types of Paolo Roversi picture. One is a flat representation, which often deals with darkness and/or intense colour, and the other is a compositional image, which deals with atmosphere. Is that something you agree with and are aware of?
Paolo: Yes, but I think that they are both about emotion. I am not conscious of creating these two types of image. For me, photography is always about the portrait. It does not matter if I photograph these flowers, this table, this room; they are all portraits to me. To me a landscape is a portrait of a place. In my mind photography is always a portrait, and it is always autobiographical. The photograph is a mirror and I let the subject reflect in my camera, in my eyes and in my mind. It’s a kind of exchange between me and my subject.
© Grant Scott 2012
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