Paolo Roversi: “I reflect myself in my subjects and they are...

Paolo Roversi: “I reflect myself in my subjects and they are...
Paolo Roversi: “I reflect myself in my subjects and they are...

As a child, Paolo Roversi dreamed of becoming a conductor. In the small Italian town of Ravenna, where he was born, this son of a doctor spent whole afternoons gesticulating while standing on a chair. In his hand, an improvised wand to direct the songs he listened to at the top of his lungs. The dream did not go very far. In nearly forty years of career, Paolo Roversi, 73, has become one of the world’s greatest fashion photographers. Romanesque and timeless, his Polaroid portraits are populated by sensual and almost ghostly creatures, deep eyes and hazy outlines. Rihanna, Cate Blanchett, Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, to name just a few illustrious handfuls.

Like scores, the bodies move and move according to a “Roversian” interpretation of reality, between dreamlike and sweet melancholy. Until January 10, 2021, a symphony of his most beautiful images has been staged at the Ravenna Art Museum: Paolo Roversi – Studio Luce, named after his Parisian studio, a 1930 building that he has occupied for thirty-five years. From Thursday, the Italian artist is also the subject of an exhibition at the Hyères Festival, of which he is also chairing the photo jury this year. In Paris, a glass of orange Campari in hand, he talks about his career and tries to put his art into words.

Le Temps: We have been going through an unprecedented global health, political and economic crisis for several months. How are you, Paolo Roversi?

Paolo Roversi: I’m fine. Like everyone else, I remained isolated with my family during the months of March and April. We were in the countryside so can’t complain. Professionally, it is much more complicated. You have to put on a mask all the time, it makes certain ways of working impossible. We are less comfortable, and this discomfort also appears in the photos, obviously.

It feels like light years from your childhood in Ravenna, in the years 1950-1960 …

Yes, especially since I had a very simple, very happy childhood. We were five brothers and sisters, we spent our summers at the beach, naked, all the time. We took off our shoes in June and only put them back on in September, to go to school. Everything changed, there was the Beatles, the conquest of space. It was a wonderful, extraordinary time.

Are you nostalgic?

Very. This is perhaps my biggest flaw. But I don’t see it as a weakness. As Pasolini said, nostalgia is the revolutionary force of the past.

Your first camera, do you remember it?

Of course. It had been given to me for my first communion, I was 8 or 9 years old. It was a dual purpose Ferrania Elioflex. I still have it.

Has the passion for photography followed?

Not immediately. It was not until I was 18: I had gone on vacation to Spain and my uncle had lent me a camera to act as a tourist. At the time, I was very literary, I wrote poems. I’m not sure how to explain it, but during this trip I felt that photography was another way of making poetry. When I returned to Italy, I had my images developed and put words on them.

Was the world of fashion familiar to you?

Absolutely not. I didn’t know anything, not even Chanel or Dior. But one evening, at my friend Mattia Moreni’s, a great Italian painter, I met the Swiss Peter Knapp, then artistic director of the magazine She. I arrived with my little box of photos. He put them on the floor, turned them over, looked at them with great concentration. It was a shock to me: I had never seen anyone treat images like this. He offered me to become his assistant in Paris. It was in 1973. I then tried to work for Guy Bourdin. I went to see him in his studio in Les Halles, he immediately became interested in my astrological sign. I told him I was Libra, he said, “I don’t like Libras.” So I ended up becoming Laurence Sackman’s assistant. He was a very difficult photographer to live with, but he taught me everything.

You have to make the images you want, not have any constraints or get caught up in codes

Paolo Roversi

Would your photos have been totally different if Guy Bourdin had hired you?

They might have been better, for Bourdin was a genius, but not entirely different. Laurence Sackman said: “You have to fix your tripod on the ground and your camera on the tripod, but keep your head completely free.” I think Bourdin would have taught me the same thing. That you have to make the images you want, not have any constraints or get caught up in codes.

As a photographer, is it difficult to remain free today?

We are constantly strafed with images, on TV, on our phones, on our computers, it’s terrible pollution, a form of violence, even. The other day I took my son to the movies to see Zabriskie Point scored by Michelangelo Antonioni. He thought it was great to see scenes where “nothing happens”. In fact, there’s a lot going on, but that’s another language. Today, young people play electronic games while watching TV, and if possible while also doing their homework. Me, I am from another era.

Who says Roversi necessarily says Polaroid, your camera of choice. Why this choice?

In the days of Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin, Polaroid images were part of the preparation process to arrive at the final image. They were drafts. I immediately found them much more beautiful than the final photos. With the film, we get realism, the right color. With the Polaroid, there is another interpretation of colors, of matter. You can overexpose and the skin turns very white, but the eyes remain deep and the hair very dark. In addition, it is a unique image, which always fascinates me. That they have stopped producing the 20x25cm films is a disaster for me. I’m like a watercolor artist without a watercolor.

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Does digital technology lack authenticity for you?

It lacks sensuality. For me photography is a piece of paper that you can take, handle, tear.

What makes you want to take a photo?

It always starts with a look. It is necessary that the person (or the object) provokes in me an emotion, that it echoes something in my memories, my obsessions or my erotic fantasies.

Whether your subject is a mug or a supermodel, is it always a portrait?

Yes, for me everything is portrait, because it’s always a face-to-face. I isolate my subject and reflect myself in it, and I also let the subject reflect in me. In this sense, there is an autobiographical aspect in each of my images. It is each time a meeting and a reciprocal exchange.

One of the sections of your exhibitions is devoted to your muses, such as Naomi Campbell or Natalia Vodianova. What is a muse?

In my eyes, beauty is a mystery, something unfathomable and impossible to reveal. A muse is someone who manages to drop one or two veils of this mystery, to bring me somewhere else. Like a wind that carries me out to sea. There is no formula to describe what a muse is. It’s the same with light. As the photographer Nadar said, taking a photo is something that can be learned very easily through technique. What cannot be learned is the feeling of light. Like love, beauty or elegance, we feel it, or we don’t.

Paolo Roversi-Studio Luce, until January 10, 2021 at the Ravenna Art Museum, mar.ra.it

Silence, from October 15 to November 29, at Villa Noailles, Hyères, villanoailles-hyeres.com

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