Paolo Roversi is one of the most exciting fashion photographers alive today. Discover this for yourself at his new solo exhibition, opening Friday at The Wapping Project Bankside.
Capturing female beauty like no other in the industry, Paolo Roversi takes photographs that stick in the mind and seduce the soul. Born in Italy, based in Paris, Roversi has spent over three decades establishing himself as one of fashion’s most celebrated and sought-after photographers, and has shot for the likes of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and of course i-D (his most recent cover being the glorious Stella Tennant for The Hedonist Issue in spring 2011). As well as embarking on numerous collaborations with fashion giants such as Yohji Yamamoto, Comme des Garçons and Yves Saint Laurent, Roversi has made some of the world’s most beautiful women appear immortal, from Natalia Vodianova and Kate Moss to the entrancing Guinevere, one of his favourite muses. With portraits that range from the ethereal and romantic to the devilishly dark, Roversi is a photographer who favours a natural aesthetic, preferring to work from his austere Parisian studio and often using a simple 8×10 camera and the sunlight from his window to shoot.
Now at London’s innovative Wapping Project Bankside, a collection of Roversi’s finest works will be on display for all to see. Taking material from both his acclaimed Nudi and Studio series, the exhibition will focus on one subject in particular: the perfect Guinevere as she sits perched in his studio, bearing her body and soul against a sombre background of bare timber and creaky stools. i-D Editor-in-Chief Terry Jones sat down with Roversi to discuss memorable moments, muses and the art of romance.
TJ: Getting into fashion and going your own way, when did that start?
PR: That started, not long after I assisted Laurence Sackman. I started with a little still life, a kind of domestic picture because I had no studio. I started doing still life in the kitchen, with my children’s little toys. I remember I did a story, I called it Domestic Accident, it was a little man jumping on a bike out of a jar of marmalade. With this little still life, I showed my director and immediately I got some work. Elle asked me to do a story of shoes. Then from there, little by little I went to fashion, accessories first, then models. I don’t remember exactly the progression.
TJ: Was your wife working in fashion?
PR: Yes my wife was working in fashion. At that point we were living in a little, little apartment, two salons, but my studio was there. There has always been a studio in the house, I don’t know why, but I always have a domestic studio. When I moved 25 years ago, I had a whole floor for my studio. Now the whole building is a studio! It’s funny because, even now when some models or some make-up artists come to the studio, they often say, “It’s nice here, it feels like home, it’s not like a studio.” So it’s a tradition, this domestic feeling. It’s funny, I never did it on purpose, it just happened, I don’t know why.
TJ: Do you think it influenced the type of picture you took?
PR: I think so, I think so, it creates an intimate feeling.
TJ: Romance is part of your secret…
PR: Yes, I think so. I am somebody who is very romantic. Since childhood, I have been reading romantic poetry.
TJ: Did you ever write?
PR: I was writing yes. I wanted to be a writer, until I was 18 or 20 years old. I was very involved in literature; I was going to all the meetings and the conferences of writers. Reading all the reviews, I was very interested. Then little by little, I don’t even know why, I moved to the image. I moved from the word to the image. Everything that happened, happened by chance, I never decided I wanted to be a writer or a photographer. I have always gone where the wind has taken me, I am lucky there has always been a good wind, I like what I’ve done.
TJ: Do you make your luck?
PR: Yes, of course. But I think it’s the wind, it’s a good direction. It’s a mixture. But even in my pictures, I like the chance, I like the accidental light in a picture. It’s true when I take a Polaroid, when something happens that wasn’t expected, I love that. But it’s not a real accident…
TJ: It’s a controlled accident… You know what’s going to happen.
PR: I think it’s half and half. Always half and half.
TJ: With Polaroid also you would see quite quickly…
PR: Yes with Polaroid, you provoke an unexpected reaction. The material is harder to control and the mechanics are a little more delicate.
TJ: Did you archive the Polaroids?
PR: Yes, the archive is very important. As you said before, people don’t make negatives anymore. I think it’s a big mistake for a photographer not to. It’s very important, it’s all we have; it’s our treasure in a way. It’s not just our work, it’s our lives.
TJ: What’s going to be in the exhibition at Wapping?
PR: It’s been a long time since I had a solo exhibition and I’m very happy to have another one. It’s not a big exhibition. It’s a little selection of some of my work, some pictures from my book Studio. I like the book because it shows the secret part of my studio; my stool, my blanket, my lens, my tools, which I work with everyday. These tools are never the protagonist. But I like this book because the tools become the subject of the full page. I like my little cable leads to become the star for a moment. I respect my tools very much.
TJ: But if you have to travel do you take the same camera?
PR: Not all the time, but mostly. My blanket is always coming with me; some pieces always come, it’s a bit of superstition.
TJ: Do you get let down with a camera, do you have back ups, if one camera doesn’t work?
PR: Yes and I change. Once I was in New York in the middle of the street with Milla Jovovich working for W, and I was there with my 8 x 10 and suddenly there was a big storm and my camera is wood, very fragile, so I couldn’t work with it. So I thought, “what can I do now, I have only this camera.” So I saw this store, Kodak, ‘Your Picture in On Hour’, so I brought a camera. It was funny because there were lots of Larry Clark pictures in the store, and I said “Do you know Larry Clark?” And he said “oh Larry, he’s my best friend, I do all his prints”. So I was not so scared to work with this camera after that!
TJ: And for the exhibition, you show some of your nudes?
PR: Oui, just 6 nudes of Guinevere [Van Seenus] because there is a studio part and a Guinevere part. It’s not just about a girl in front of the camera, moving and jumping and smiling. It’s a strong relationship that is very important to my work. It’s my dream about beauty and sexuality, and they are very important, some of these girls, they give me the courage and the energy to work.
TJ: How old were they when you started working with them?
PR: They were very young, Kirsten [Owen] was 17, Guinevere was the same, 16, 17. Natalia she was maybe 18, all very young. I am still photographing them now. They are really part of my work and part of my life too. Because there’s no border between life and work. I think it’s very difficult to separate your private life from your work, they are touching all the time.
TJ: Particularly when you have the studio in your house…
PR: Certainly, if you are a photographer, or an artist in general, it’s 24 hours day.
TJ: You have lived in Paris for a long time…
PR: Oui I came in 1972.
TJ: But I remember the picture you gave for the SOUL project, of you with this huge family in Italy.
PR: Ah you remember that picture! Those are my roots. Unfortunately some people in the picture are not there anymore, but new ones are arriving, that’s life. The family is still huge. My roots are very important to me, you can’t forget them. There is a very famous Chinese proverb that says ‘when you don’t know where to go, look at where you’re coming from.’ I think it’s very nice and I will never forget where I came from. I’m a very nostalgic person. I remember once I said to Robert Frank – we were looking at a picture of him – and he said “maybe this picture is a bit nostalgic” and I said “you know Robert, I’m sure I will die of nostalgia. It won’t be a heart attack or cancer, it will be nostalgia!” He was laughing at me!
TJ: You have a lot of connections with Rei Kawakubo and with Yohji Yamamoto. How did you establish such a strong connection with them?
PR: What they do has touched me very deeply, I was always fascinated and since the beginning, I was very touched by the creativity and the elegance and the sense of beauty from Rei and Yohji. I think they felt the same with my pictures so we slowly got in contact. They are of course Japanese so their roots are very far from mine, but they feel my roots and I feel theirs. They are both geniuses, they really are artists, not just fashion designers.
TJ: Although she says she’s a business woman…
PR: She says she’s a businesswoman but she’s an artist, she takes risks all the time, as an artist you do. She always pushes the boundaries a little bit further. I think she’s fantastic. Yohji too.
TJ: Who was your master?
PR: My real master was an Italian photographer in Ravenna, the place I was born. He did everything: industrial photography, theatre photography, football matches, weddings. So he had a lot, a lot of stuff, all the single 8 x 10s. He had a camera for everything.
TJ: How old were you?
PR: I was 17 or 18 and so every afternoon after school, I went to his studio. He was doing his prints himself, he had a dark room. The studio was not at all like a fashion studio or a professional photographer’s studio. It was an apartment. It was interesting, everything from him was interesting, he was a good teacher. This was my school in a way and then when I came to Paris, I was assisting and, by chance, I went to see Bourdin and Newton but I was not lucky with them. Bourdin asked me which star sign I was, I said I was Libra, and he said, “oh no I don’t like Libras”. Haha! So finally I found Laurence Sackman and he was a young photographer. Crazy guy, but a fantastic photographer. From him I learnt a lot, the professional way to work, very solid. He told me something I will never forget, he said “you know, your camera should be very solid in the tripod; the tripod very solid in the floor. But your mind should be completely free”. And this I think is a good lesson. The technique needs to be strong but the imagination should be completely free and flying all the time.
Paolo Roversi at The Wapping Project – Bankside runs from 3rd February until 31st March 2012.