“The first time my American agent came here, she said ‘I can’t believe you do all these pictures in this little room’,” laughs Paolo Roversi as he looks around the modest space he’s used as his studio for more than three decades.
The Italian remains one of the world’s most sought-after fashion photographers, having forged his reputation during the mid-1980s shooting inspired catalogues for designers such as Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto, in an age when creatives were given unparalleled freedom of expression. Yet his studio is just a room in an unremarkable building in a nondescript arrondissement of southern Paris, furnished with battered chairs and old blankets. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I know this place by heart,” he says. “I know the light by heart, the reflections on the wall – even if I close my eyes, I feel when clouds are there. This is like my bedroom, my kitchen, everything.”
In fact, when he first moved into the studio in 1981 it was literally his home – he set up his studio on the first floor, and lived above on the second and third floors. These days his house is elsewhere, but the studio still feels cosy. His office – run by Anna, his assistant of 15 years – and his son’s darkroom, are both downstairs, and there is a kitchen and a living room-slash-dining 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.
“It’s like a home,” says Jules Wright of The Wapping Project. “When you go for lunch everyone comes up, and it’s very beautifully prepared. It’s very family orientated – Paolo’s got a big family, so he’s used to that, and the people who work in his studio get absorbed into the family group.”
“The studio is part of the spirit of the work,” adds Roversi. “It’s not a big, empty space like some studio in New York; people are comfortable here because it’s intimate. They immediately feel part of a team, so they have more confidence. In the morning [of a shoot] people are arriving from different places, bringing different experiences, and everyone has their own energy, their own state of mind. I like to put all this energy together.
“It’s a kind of richness for me, to have all this energy coming here in the studio, so I like to put all this together and make something with it, rather than saying ‘you do this, you do that’.”
It’s a sense of intimacy borne out in his intense images, which often feature the same models shot over the course of many years, wearing the latest couture for editorial shoots for the likes of Vogue or W, or sometimes posing nude for pictures that best show off Roversi’s stripped-down aesthetic.
“Some of these models are really muses for me,” says Roversi. “There is an exchange between us. They make all my dreaming about beauty and family and sensuality concrete because the connection is very strong.
“The most important moment is when you open the shutter,” he adds. “It’s like opening your heart; the moment where you take something, and you give something. I can’t explain it technically, but I think that if you don’t live an emotion at this moment, if there is no energy passing from you and your subject, the picture will be boring.
“But if you are a good photographer, and there is this energy, or spirit, or magnetism, it will be in the picture. I always try to put a lot of myself in my pictures, to make them as personal as I can. It’s like if you write a letter, you put something of yourself into it. If not, it’s just a postcard, ‘Kisses from Paris’ and nothing else.”
This moment is the essence of all his efforts in the studio, he says, not the small room he’s worked in for so long, and which he photographed for Studio, a book published by Steidl Dangin in 2006. In the introduction to this book he says the studio is “a corner of my mind”, his eyes the film “awaiting light and new images”.
“I’ve been to India, Lapland, other places in Paris, but wherever I put my camera, it’s my studio,” he says. “My way to take a photograph, it’s a subtraction, it’s the essence of the subject. That’s what’s important to me – to isolate the subject from the rest of reality. This studio, it’s like a little theatre. It’s a place that leaves a little space for the imagination, the feelings, the fantasy.”
“I think Paolo goes to other places in his mind when he’s in his studio,” observes Wright. “I think everyone does. If you look at the photographs of Guinevere, she is assuming a different role in every one. That camera and that old blanket seem to release everyone’s imagination.”
Born in Ravenna in north-eastern Italy in 1947, Roversi took up photography on a family holiday in Spain. Back home the 17-year-old set up a darkroom with a friend and began developing and printing his own black-and-white images; over the next 10 years, three people made an impression on him.
The first was a local photographer, Nevio Natali, with whom he served a kind of apprenticeship in the late 1960s before opening his own studio in 1970. By chance, he met Peter Knapp, the legendary art director of French Elle the next year, who invited him to Paris in November 1973. Once Roversi had arrived, he never left. At first he worked for a news agency, but then he decided to try out as an assistant to the notoriously difficult photographer Lawrence Sackmann.
“Most assistants only lasted a week before running away,” recalls the Italian in his website bio, “but he taught me everything I needed to know in order to become a professional photographer. Sackmann taught me creativity.
“He was always trying new things, even if he did always use the same camera and flash setup. He was almost military-like in his approach to preparation for a shoot. But he always used to say, ‘Your tripod and your camera must be well-fixed, but your eyes and mind should be free’.”
Roversi endured the British photographer for nine months before starting out on his own with a few small commissions for Elle and Depeche Mode, and then Marie Claire published his first major fashion story. In 1980 he gained wider recognition with a beauty campaign for Christian Dior, the same year he discovered the film format that was to become his trademark.
“The 8×10 Polaroid was launched and they called me one night to do a demonstration in the studio,” he says. “After 10 seconds I fell in love.”
He was attracted to the quality of the film, and the fact that it allowed him to see the image almost instantly – he always shares his pictures with the other people on set, pinning them up on a board. Working with the large format film also led him to the Deardorff camera that he still uses it to this day.
“It wasn’t like a robust Swiss camera, it was so sensual with its wood and its folds,” he says. “Then I discovered [Irving] Penn, [Erwin] 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.
“I can’t explain it technically, but when the exposure is very long, the picture of the subject is more intense,” he adds. “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.”
His favourite light is the natural light from his studio’s large, north-facing window, which he describes as “a little dusty after its long voyage”, and “an avenging angel – pure, intense and incredibly sharp and penetrating” in his introduction to Studio. He has a near-religious faith in the light, he says, because the sun and light are the beginning of life, and photography is “drawing with light”.
If he does use artificial lights, he prefers continuous sources such as HMIs, or he uses a handheld Mag-Lite, working in complete darkness and using it to light up specific parts of the subject. He likes the torch because it’s unpredictable, he says, his nose wrinkling with horror as he describes an American studio photographer who screws a flash to the studio floor.
“This is the opposite of what I do,” he says. “Can you imagine that if I screw the light, I fix the light? The light is something alive; it’s always changing. I have a faith in the light itself. Nadar said something very important for me. He said: ‘It’s very easy to learn to take a picture. What is very difficult is to learn the feeling for light’. ‘Le sentiment de la lumiére’ – I like this expression very much.
“Nadar also said that what he was looking for was the ‘ultime resemblance’ – the ultimate resemblance. All my photography is about these two things – not just the surface, but something deeper than the surface of the shape. Nadar is very important to me for these two revelations.”
Perhaps surprisingly, the 8×10 for which Roversi is celebrated isn’t his only camera – he has a host of other tools including a Leica, a 6×6 Rolleiflex, a 6×9 Alpa and a Holga plastic camera, and has started to use digital capture too. But while he doesn’t have “an attitude against digital”, he is struggling with its immaterial nature. “It’s not that the camera changes the way I look, but I always say photography is not all about view, it’s all five of our senses – the view, the smell, the taste, everything.
“So I have some problems with digital, because I see and nothing else. The images are just numbers appearing on a screen – you don’t touch them, you don’t smell them. In this I am very traditional. For me photography is not an image floating on a screen, it’s an object, a format with weight that you can put in your pocket, your wallet, your family album.”
By contrast, shooting with the Polaroid is sensual, he says, from the smell of the film to the act of peeling back the layers to reveal the image. In the special edition of Studio he tried to replicate this experience, presenting the images inside black gatefold pages that the reader had to open out.
Roversi also enjoys the fact each Polaroid is a unique one-off, and laughs that each of his originals has a hole near the top, because he pins them on his shoots. He’s “desperate” that Polaroid has ceased production, and is down to his last few boxes of film, he says – in future he’ll have to use the 8×10 with ordinary film.
“It’s completely different – I am used to seeing the images,” he says. “I remember the first time a digital team came to see me to show how it was working, I asked what the most important characteristic of digital was. They said ‘You can see the picture immediately’, and I said ‘Do you know who you’re talking to?!’”
Even so, he never chooses his edit on the day of the shoot, preferring to “let them sleep” for at least a night, then looking at the images again. Sometimes he’s very wrong, he says, and the images he initially liked seem like nothing when he goes back to them. Sometimes images he barely noticed while shooting come to the fore. Each picture has its own life, he says – like drops of water dripping into a stream, some disappear after three stones, others go “a long way, to become a river then a sea”.
His most famous shot is probably that of Natalia Vodianova, but in Studio there is a picture of this image among many others pinned to a board, and in exhibitions he’s chosen to show different versions of it. “A picture takes meaning from the way you use it,” he says. “It’s very different to take an image that was in a magazine and to put it on a gallery wall.”
Roversi says he’s always aware of the context he’s taking a photograph for – if he’s shooting for Italian Vogue he’s conscious of the register of the publication, for example, and if he’s working for a designer he’ll consider the woman the clothes suggest. But he adds that all his images are portraits, whatever their context, and whether he’s shooting a person or not.
“Fashion is about a mood, a spirit or an attitude that the model is interpreting, but the image is a portrait of the fantasy we create together,” he says. “Nudes are just about the person and her body, so they’re very intimate portraits, but they’re not so very different.
“For me, it’s always a portrait – if I take a picture of this cup, it’s a portrait of this cup; if I take a picture of a teapot, it’s a portrait of a teacup. It’s always a portrait, and it’s always a relation between me and my subject.”
Paolo Roversi – Storie was curated by Alessia Glaviano and part of the Photo Vogue Festival. It was on show at the Palazzo Reale, Milan from 16-19 November https://www.vogue.it/en/photo-vogue-festival/exhibition/2017/10/23/paolo-roversi-stories-palazzo-reale/