It’s more than 40 years since Paolo Roversi launched his career as a fashion photographer. He quickly developed a distinctive personal style, which he has continued to evolve gradually and subtly over time.
His images are simultaneously contemporary and timeless. His techniques are arguably anachronistic – he’s best known for his use of large-format polaroid film, the antithesis of the reliance on digital post-production that dominates today’s photography. And his influence has been greater than might be expected for someone who bucks the trend, is defiantly himself and doesn’t seek the limelight.
Some years ago, I was at a panel discussion at London’s National Portrait Gallery. On the panel was Paolo Roversi, who talked eloquently about the early work of Irving Penn, the subject of the session and one clearly close to his heart. In the audience was a large group of art-college students. Their questions and observations pointed to just how highly the upcoming generation of photographers and fashion designers regarded Paolo’s work.
Perhaps that’s because it’s different, perhaps because it has real integrity. Paolo has a clear vision from which he is prepared to diverge only so far in order to accommodate the wishes of art directors and other clients. And over the years he has made time to put together a striking portfolio of personal work alongside the commissions that appear in magazines and elsewhere.
The world of Paolo Roversi
One of the most striking aspects of Paolo’s photographs, perhaps the most striking, is their mood. It’s difficult to put into words but if I were to choose just three adjectives to describe them, they would be intimate, romantic and fantastical.
Those adjectives could suggest images that are soft and pretty but insipid and wishy-washy. That’s not the case. In the best of them there’s a fierce intensity that seems to come from the relationship between photographer and subject. As Galen Schlick observes in a discussion on photo.net:
He is very much interested in creating an atmosphere with his subject and sometimes I have witnessed him unable to achieve this and other times I have witnessed the way he can bring a calm to a model just by a touch. He very much puts his subject first because he believes if he can’t get that atmosphere of peace in his subject then he will definitely be unable to get a photo that expresses his emotions.
This makes for an interesting comparison with two of the great post-World War II fashion photographers: Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, who might serve as reference points here. Every photographer working with a sitter has to find a way to get them into the right frame of mind for a shoot and there are many ways of doing so.
The relationships Avedon built with his sitters were absolutely crucial to the images he created. He was an arch manipulator, sometimes an unscrupulous one, and came to a shoot with a strong agenda. He could also be very confrontational and take shots at rather than of his subjects. And sessions were typically noisy, energetic and exciting, with the photographer leaping about all over the place.
Penn, by contrast, would create an atmosphere of calm in his studio. His relationships with his sitters were much more formal and detached than Avedon’s, with the photographer instructing his subject exactly how to pose. Although the photographer could be difficult to please, there was no need for the subject to arrive at his studio in a state of trepidation.
The atmosphere that Paolo creates in his studio appears to be much closer to that of Penn than Avedon in its tranquillity. But the importance Paolo attaches to his relationships with his subjects is more akin to Avedon. Plus, he is invariably kind to them – he talks about giving rather than taking a photograph.
Paulo also seems to have a more improvisatory approach than both of his predecessors. While it is he who takes the lead, you sense the shoot is a genuine collaboration, with the photographer giving his subject the confidence to achieve something they will both be happy with. Something, also, that will stir the emotions rather than simply function as a record of a sitting.
Typically, his women – and most of his photos are of women – are graceful, fragile, sometimes almost androgynous. Many of them have a kind of pre-Raphaelite quality. And he has his favourites, among whom are Kirsten Owen, Guinevere Van Seenus and Natalia Vodianova with whom he works again and again over a period of years. Not for Paolo Roversi the Sports Illustrated or Victoria’s Secret type of girl. Nor are his models ever just clothes horses.
There is no sense that Paolo Roversi’s sitters are trying to act out someone else’s fantasy. They are self-possessed, they are not afraid to look the viewer straight in the eye, and they are themselves – at least a version of themselves they are comfortable with.
With the occasional exception, Paolo Roversi creates his world in the studio. Props are minimal, composition simple and colour palette typically restrained. Within these self-imposed constraints, he conjures up an atmosphere that is delicate, sensuous and dreamy. More often than not there’s a strong focus on the subject’s face, even when the face itself is out of focus. It’s an idiosyncratic, recognizable style that he can flex to embrace both his commercial and his personal work:
My work is a mixture of classical and experimental. Sometimes the classical is more important and sometimes the experimental, but when the balance between these two is good, that’s the most interesting part of my work.
Paolo’s approach to photography
If photographers’ approaches to their work fit along a spectrum from intuitive to calculating, then Paolo Roversi is at the intuitive end. Regardless, he has a clear idea of what he’s about:
I am always in search of beauty. This I know for sure. Beauty is something that attracts me completely all of the time and pushes me far in search of something.
Closely related but not the same thing is a quest for intimacy and fantasy. For Paolo, “Every photograph is an encounter, an intimate, reciprocal confession.” The encounter is not just about a model turning up in the studio, more importantly it’s about a meeting of minds and the joint exploration of a kind of alternative reality:
I try to look at what’s behind the subject. Photography for me is not representation, but the revelation of another dimension. By using the camera, I touch lightly on another life, opening the door to a different world.
Some of these models are really muses for me. There is an exchange between us. They make all my dreaming about beauty and family and sensuality concrete because the connection is very strong.
It’s this connection between photographer and model that enables them to become collaborators in the creation of portraits:
Portraits are what interest me the most in photography. I am a portrait photographer. I treat fashion photography like a portraitist… It is the atmosphere and the mood of a portrait which brings clothes to life.
And the making of these portraits is demanding of both photographer and subject:
My photography is more subtraction than addition. I always try to take off things. We all have a sort of mask of expression. You say goodbye, you smile, you are scared. I try to take all these masks away and little by little subtract until you have something pure left. A kind of abandon, a kind of absence. It looks like an absence, but in fact when there is this emptiness I think the interior beauty comes out. This is my technique.
While Paolo believes his studio is first and foremost a mindset, which travels with him, his studio in Paris says a lot about his approach. There are many shots of it in his 2005 book, Studio. The studio itself feels cosy and intimate – not grand or high tech:
My studio is a rectangular room with a high ceiling, old wooden parquet flooring, and a large window facing north. It is like a tiny theatre with an empty stage, a space to be filled, a time yet to be invented, a proscenium where everything is possible, no trick disallowed, where neither seasons, nor days, nor hours exist.
For Paolo, it is a source of mystery and inspiration:
Some days, when I arrive and I ﬁnd the curtain still drawn, the studio is asleep, swathed in the profound darkness. I abandon myself to this sensation of blindness in a moment of intimate meditation. I feel as I am inside the camera, my eyes the ﬁlm awaiting light and new images. …
Deep mystery of beauty and darkness … then an idea begins to take shape, a dream coming to life, a memory awakening, and it is then that I open the curtain and prepare a reﬂector; it just takes a little light and a little courage to make a photograph. Every photograph enters the world as a sign of hope.
The office and the darkroom are both downstairs, and there is a kitchen/living room next door. He likes to get everyone together at the start of a shoot, sitting down for a meal and catching up with their stories. Echoes here of get togethers around the kitchen table recounted by Norma Stevens and Steven Aronson in Avedon: Something Personal.
What about the shoot itself? It’s not all meticulously pre-planned. Chance and spontaneity are important:
So you never know what you’ll do in the end. And this I like. I like the accidents, the things that happen by chance. I let the life come to the picture and the creativity flow.
Is it too far-fetched to see a connection here with a verse from Leonard Cohen’s song, Anthem?
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
One of the things Paolo likes about Polaroids is that they enable him to see immediately how a shot turns out. His way of working is to pin up the prints so that everyone involved in the shoot can take a look and discuss them. He doesn’t edit them until the following day or later – often when he comes back he finds his feelings about the individual images have changed and he ends up making a different selection.
Paolo Roversi’s commercial work is mostly for fashion designers and magazines, so his views on clothes are worth noting:
I always say that the designer is the composer of the music, and the photographer plays the instrument – or is the interpreter of the piece. It’s very important for me to have this music in front of me, playing it the way I like it, and within it, to create a certain kind of woman or man. The dream of couture is very important in what I do.
And that returns us to the flexibility alluded to earlier. Look, for example, at his work for Armani and Comme Des Garçons. In the case of the former, his images are relatively conventional, albeit unmistakeably a Roversi take. In the case of the latter, his images are much freer, more abstract.
Although he uses digital when the situation calls for it, Paolo is at heart a passionately analogue photographer:
I don’t care about the millions of pixels of a digital image. I’m interested in the primitive photographic process: the image appearing like a ghost.
He seems to be less reliant than most of his contemporaries on digital post-production. He works his magic in the studio. He uses a variety of techniques to achieve the effects he’s looking for, from coloured gels to double exposures – echoes here of Erwin Blumenfeld.
For decades, now, Paulo has been having a love affair with large-format Polaroids:
The 8×10 Polaroid was launched and they called me one night to do a demonstration in the studio. After 10 seconds I fell in love.
He’s attracted to the qualities of the film, and the fact that it allows him to see the image almost instantly. He describes the sensory pleasure he gets – from the smell of the Polaroid itself to the act of peeling back the layers to reveal the image. For him, digital, shooting just cannot compete.
Working with the large-format film led him to the Deardorff camera that he still likes to use to this day:
It wasn’t like a robust Swiss camera, it was so sensual with its wood and its folds. Then I discovered Penn, Blumenfeld; everyone was working with this camera. I like the slowness of everything, and the fact it needs a lot of light. I’ve always been obliged to work with the lens open, the highest stop, and I like that very much. I never change it.
Slowness brings us to a second characteristic of Paolo Roversi’s technique: long exposures.
I can’t explain it technically, but when the exposure is very long, the picture of the subject is more intense. The presence is much stronger, much deeper – in the aura, in the eyes, there is something. Maybe the soul is coming into the eyes. That’s something I learnt from looking at early photographs. If you take a picture with the flash, for me it’s empty. There’s an emptiness in the presence of the person.
Another reason for liking long exposures is that they allow for an element of chance: “Always, photographs surprise me; they never turn out quite the way I imagine they might.”
Then it’s back to the tactile qualities of the shoot:
Then there is the old worn-out cable release, channelling my thoughts, my emotions, my desires towards the shutter, alive in my hand with all the tension and the pathos of the crucial moment.
His prints come in a variety of formats: silver gelatin, carbon and dye-transfer. The prints available from commercial galleries these days seem mostly to be digital versions of polaroid originals, from which he can’t bear to be parted: “I haven’t got the mentality of painters who are used to doing canvasses, then being separated from them.”
Where does Paulo Roversi fit into the history of photography?
There are echoes of some of the great photographers of the past in Paolo Roversi’s work.
He regularly mentions his admiration of Félix Nadar (1820–1910) – both his “feeling for light” (“le sentiment de la lumière”) and his quest for the “ultime resemblance.” As Anne Lacoste, co-curator of an exhibition dedicated to the Nadars observes:
At the time, most portrait studios were using background and a lot of accessories and focusing on the way people were dressed. Instead, he was focusing on the face, using a neutral background to try and interpret the character of the people.
Two of Nadar’s contemporaries in England also feel as if, in their different ways, they have much in common with Paolo Roversi.
Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–79) focused her efforts on portraits that were often intentionally out of focus. Nor did she worry about scratches, smudges and other imperfections – like Nadar, her interest was in capturing a more profound characterization of her subject. Unlike Nadar, Cameron spent much of her time framing her sitters as characters from biblical, historical or allegorical stories. For me, much of Paolo Roversi’s portrait and personal work has an allegorical quality and indeed this is referenced in the title of his first book, Angeli.
Lady Clementina Hawarden (1822–65) is much less well known than Nadar and Cameron. She was an amateur, she didn’t promote herself, and her work was never commercialized. What’s more, pretty much all of her surviving photographs are in the archives of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum so never appear on the market. What’s striking is that she manages to create a mood that’s remarkably similar to Paolo’s – specifically her romantic portraits of her adolescent daughters, whom she was fond of dressing up to create a world of make-believe.
Despite the efforts of such practitioners as Nadar, Cameron and Hawarden, photography increasingly came to be seen and used as a medium for making accurate visual records. Then in the late 19th century the Pictorialist movement emerged to reclaim photography as a medium of fine art the Photo Secessionists in the US were the most significant part of this). Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen were the Secession’s most vocal and visible.advocates. Pictorialist imagery was romantic, with lots of soft focus and references to painting. The finished artefacts often involved complex darkroom processes, unusual papers and elaborate framing. Mood and texture were defining characteristics. It was all very arty.
The First World War knocked the stuffing out of the Pictorialist movement– romanticism no longer seemed appropriate or relevant. Except… in the fields of fashion, film and theatrical revues – havens of escapism.
Fashion photography was dominated by the work of Baron Adolf de Meyer at Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar in the post-War years and through the 1920s and his influence is evident in a photo of an evening dress by Louise Boulanger. It doesn’t seem too far-fetched to see a thread here connecting to the work of Paolo Roversi more than half a century later.
In the field of entertainment, the closest parallel to Paolo Roversi may be Alfred Cheney Johnston, whose career peaked during the 1920s when he was in great demand for his portraits of movie and theatre actors and actresses. His most famous photos are of the Ziegfeld Follies showgirls, whom he photographed nude as well as costumed. His camera of choice was even bigger than Paolo’s (it produced 11×14-inch glass-plate negatives) and like Paolo his lighting is soft and dreamy.
It doesn’t end there. Take a look, for example, at Ruth Harriet Louise’s portraits for MGM or at the images, moving and still, of Marlene Dietrich masterminded by Josef von Sternberg, such as this example by Eugene Robert Richee for Shanghai Express (1932). Particularly during the silent-movie era, cinematographers were not averse to a bit of back-lighting and Vaseline on the lens to create a soft, romantic atmosphere for their stars.
There’s another characteristic of the golden age of Hollywood that Paolo Roversi’s work recalls. That is the relationships that developed between photographer and sitter. Think Bull and Garbo, Hurrell and Crawford, Coburn and Hayworth. These relationships were fostered by the studio system. Stars were tied to studios, and each studio had no more than handful of portrait photographers. There was a constant demand from the press, particularly fan magazines, for new images of the stars, so the same stars would end up doing sittings for the same photographers time and time again.
But there the thread breaks until the 1970s, when three female fashion photographers, each in their own way, begin to reprise the Pictorialist approach. They are Sarah Moon, Deborah Turbeville and Sheila Metzner.
Paolo Roversi in print
Paolo’s earliest work was published in Dépèche Mode, Elle and Marie Claire. I’ve seen a copy of the January 1978 issue of Dépèche Mode, which has a cover and editorial by Paolo. His style at that point is typical of the era and unrecognizable from what it would become by the mid-1980s.
He has worked for Vogue for decades, initially (I think) for the UK edition and subsequently for its Fren ch and Italian counterparts. Some of his most interesting shoots have been for leading fashion houses such as Comme Des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto, Romeo Gigli, Alberta Ferretti and Giorgio Armani.
He has also published a fair number of books, many of them produced with exquisite attention to detail and in limited editions. Needless to say, those volumes are almost impossible to get hold of now. The following is by no means a comprehensive listing:
- Una Donna, Edizione Carla Sozzani, 1989
- Angeli, Paris, Camera Obscura, 1993
- Nudi, Stromboli, 1999
- Images. Cerruti, Steidl, 1999
- Libretto, Stromboli, 2000
- Studio, Steidl, 2008
- Secrets, Stromboli, 2013–2014
- Natalia, Rizzoli, 2015
- Storie, Skira Editore, 2017
- Dior Images, Rizzoli, 2018
- Birds, Stromboli, 2020
- Studio Luce, Stromboli, 2020
- Tris, Stromboli, 2020
Want to know more about Paolo Roversi?
Thames & Hudson have published a small volume comprising an introduction by Gilles de Bure and a series of plates. It provides an available and affordable overview of Paolo’s work.
Online, various biographies are available. A good place to start is the one at Hamiltons. There are also lots of articles and interviews. Those I found most useful in preparing this essay include:
- Interview with Paolo Roversi by Susan Reich
- Light is Life: The Photography of Paolo Roversi by Nadine Farag
- Paolo Roversi in Conversation with Grant Scott
- Paolo Roversi: “My life is full of pictures I didn’t take” in The Talks
- Paolo Roversi: “Photography Is the Revelation of Another Dimension” by Angelo Flaccavento
- Paolo Roversi – The Legend by Maria Kruse
- Romeo Gigli on Photographic Collaborations
- Spontaneity and Obsession: The Motors of Creativity by Alexander Strecker
- “The feeling for light” – Paolo Roversi on photography by Diane Smyth
- To Master the Shadows by Maria Kruse
At the time of writing this piece, Paolo Roversi’s own website URL points to pages about him and his publications at Editions Stromboli.