A life dedicated to art, photography and fashion
a cura di Luca De Nardo
One man, one life and his photographic visions. Some call him ‘The Image Maker’, others ‘The Beauty Master’, Gian Paolo Barbieri is actually considered one of the greatest fashion photographers in history.
It is probably belittling to call him just that: the truth is different. Gian Paolo Barbieri was and remains the man who was able to recount the changes in society, he was able to anticipate and witness, with unequaled elegance, the visual and visionary language of a reality seen by many, watched and enjoyed by few.
For more than 60 years, Gian Paolo Barbieri has been one of the most influential international fashion photographers. By shooting the biggest advertising campaigns for international brands such as Valentino, Versace, Ferré, Armani, Bulgari, Chanel, YSL, Dolce & Gabbana, Vivienne Westwood and many others, Barbieri’s work has filled the world’s most prestigious magazines with his iconic and timeless shots for entire decades.
Barbieri is considered among the world’s top 14 fashion photographers by Stern magazine.
On tiptoes we knocked on his door to ask him some questions that are hounding our minds and which, we believe, only he will be able to answer.
In a recent interview on Corriere della Sera, you explain how the artistic eye is formed and modelled through careful observation of what surrounds us, through the study of art in its forms and highest expressions. A question of ‘mental and cognitive attitude’ that can or must be complemented with careful imaginative and mental preparation for what the result of the set should be, constructing them in an impeccable manner.
Within this flawless scheme, what role does improvisation play?
Have you ever during a shoot had to reset everything and improvise from scratch?
It happened that I had to stop a set because something wasn’t working: the set design, the lighting, the models, me… but above all the balance between all the elements. I stopped the work and postponed it until the next day, trying to understand what the problem was.
“Research and setting are essential steps for me, the shot is only the last step in this system.
Scatarzi, the director of the DocuFilm dedicated to you, describes you as elegant and welcoming, two of the many qualities you recognise when working with you on set. How important is the human and relational component in the creative phase?
I have always put empathy first, which is a key element in bringing energies together and making the work successful.
“If there is no empathy, if there is no human component that allows you to connect with the real essence, everything loses depth and becomes more difficult”.
For this reason I have always considered the getting-to-know-you part with the customer and the other parties involved a very important phase for the success of the shoot. It is necessary to fully understand who I have in front of me and in the same way I want the other party to get to know me and trust my thoughts, so as to achieve the desired result.
In his photographic works, the whole of the image accommodates details, proportions, major compositions and minor compositions, minor stories within the main story, almost in a kaleidoscopic work that explodes as a whole. Perhaps our question will seem trivial, but I assure you it is not, at least for us. The question is: “Why?”
Each time is a new beginning for me. You know when you are asked to tell a fantasy story? That’s what each time means to me and it means projecting my imagination and making it a reality, contaminating it with the Wunderkammer collected in my mind.
The roundabout of cues, carefully collected throughout my life, comes together to create an ever-changing narrative.”
Observation of reality and the ability to reinterpret it, subtracting from the former and adding/transposing to the frame. A sequential dichotomy that for many artists is fundamental, but often lethal. How do you approach this process of creative conversion? What are the key elements you deal with to create your photographic works?
My guide has always been art in all its forms.
“The points of reference that I found in film, theatre, painting, sculpture and literature became the companions of transpositions from reality to imagination and vice versa”.
So I would collect everything that could be useful to me, draw and wrote down in my notebooks and once I heard that what I had imagined, took shape in reality, only then I started shooting.
When can a photographer consider that he or she has achieved artistic autonomy? When can he feel free to choose and to propose ideas, concepts, stories in total autonomy, even to demanding and capricious clients?
I don’t think there is a rule, certainly experience is the main driver and culture too.
“Times have changed and the photographer’s CV is becoming more and more important, as we are close to a saturation of the market.”
But first of all there is the perception one has of oneself. And it is very important to know and listen to yourself in order to be able to present yourself to customers, even the most demanding ones.
What was it like to see yourself told in the biographical film ‘The Man and the Beauty’ directed by Scatarzi and to be released in Italian cinemas in spring?
Initially, I was a bit sceptical and although it may have seemed different in the past, I don’t like to be on the other side of a goal, especially to tell my story. But Emilano Scatarzi together with Federica Masin and Caterina Teoldi of Moovie Production managed to convince me and I must say that I am very happy now; it would have been a great regret not to have started and completed this journey. Certainly many people who have marked my life were left out, for reasons of timing it was impossible to interview all those who have accompanied me along the way, but I must say that it was a bit like looking in the mirror and recognising yourself.
With his extraordinary patronage gesture, entrusting the task of preserving and disseminating his work to the Foundation of the same name, his desire to leave a message for posterity and young people is unquestionable. It is no coincidence that the Foundation has been entrusted with over a million shots, including vintage works, negatives, positives, especially of minor, but no less important works. In an age like ours – fast, confused, pervasive, superficial – what would you like to say and give to the next generations? Looking at your works, what should future artists and photographers be able to grasp, to learn?
I don’t know; I just wish that my work really becomes an inspiration to someone and that the archive remains one of those links that will bind new generations to a time when the perception of the world was different, less ephemeral than now, and with it the way of conceiving photography, with another flavour and depth.
“I hope that the importance of culture, the leitmotif of my work, will remain fixed with those who want to approach photography.”
We thank Gian Paolo Barbieri and recall his very recent exhibition UNCONVENTIONAL open until 25 March 2023 at 29 ARTS IN PROGRESS in Milan, which offers the public innovative images in terms of settings and styling, the result of the unmistakable genius of the Artist: an ironic and at the same time cultured, refined and provocative photography, rich in references to the history of art, eclectic outdoor sets in exotic locations and film citations echoing the youthful experience at the Cinecittà studios in Rome.
In the exhibition intimate and spontaneous shots of models and celebrities such as Eva Herzigova, Isa Stoppi and Donatella Versace alternate with iconic photographs that Barbieri – among the most brilliant interpreters of Made in Italy – has conceived for some of the most legendary advertising campaigns for Italian and international fashion brands such as Versace, Ferré, Vivienne Westwood, Dolce & Gabbana, Valentino and Armani.
GIAN PAOLO BARBIERI: UNCONVENTIONAL
Via San Vittore 13, Milano
29 Novembre 2022 – 25 Marzo 2023