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Interviews | October 9, 2018

Gian Paolo Barbieri

He started shooting in the fifties when fashion, “wasn’t yet called that”. An internationally-renowned photographer, he has worked with the greatest stylists and magazines, but he defines himself as “a simple man who, with creativity and tenacity, turned his dreams into a job.” This last, is a cultural foundation

words Elisa Zanetti

Where did your love for photography come from?

Aged 15, amongst friends we would photograph ourselves. I documented the meetings with my friends or we would put on costumes to act out films and plays. They were my first shots and I believe that this is how my passion for photography began.

You have collaborated with the most prestigious fashion designers and magazines. Have you ever thought of transferring your taste into creating your own line?

It never occurred to me, even though I often found myself working as a stylist on the set: I was working on fabrics, creating clothes, things like turning ping-pong balls into earrings and rings.

The lens of the camera allows you to capture reality, but to also give an interpretation. Glasses lenses also capture images, but at the same time they show an interpretation and reveal the personality of those who wear them. What is your relationship with glasses?

I have a myopia of 0.5 dioptres and I have always worn glasses. Eyewear defines the personality, I’ll give some examples: The Blues Brothers’ glasses have made them timeless icons, those worn by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s enhance her character, the same applies to Tom Cruise in Top Gun with the Ray-Ban Aviators. And then, John Lennon can be identified by his round glasses, which in turn have acquired their own personality, becoming a symbol of this character. I could go on and on.

How did you and how do you change the styles of glasses you wear?

It also depends on the fashion of the time. I used to wear the James Dean turtle glasses a lot. The cinema and characters from it influenced fashion: we all wanted to be like them. Then in my work, these accessories are essential to make models appear in different ways; they are a valuable tool, they help to create a certain attitude.

And what is your relationship with fashion?

I contributed to the vision of fashion from its beginnings with prêt-à-porter in 1972. I was part of it when I didn’t even know what it was. I remember that in my shots, when I wanted to give more grit to the subject or to photography, using a pair of sunglasses was enough to gain more security and a sense of freedom.

Your portraits have marked the history of photography. What were you trying to express through your shots?

For me, photography has been a tool to witness a historical period. Regardless of genre, it was important to express something, always accompanied by the common thread of culture and passion.

How is the relationship between photographer and subject created? How does the former manage to tell more than what the eye sees?

The relationship that is established with the subject, regardless of whether it is a celebrity or a model, is essential. It starts from the dialogue. Usually the first shots are “shot” with an empty roll, interacting with the person until you create the right feeling, almost of trust. After that I start to shoot, aware that among those shots will be the decisive photo.

Fashion photography has not been your only passion. Many shots have a more anthropological theme; what has pushed you in this direction?

With the passing of the years, Italian fashion was growing but at the same time changing. At the end of the eighties, the revolution of Franca Sozzani, who preferred international photography to Italian photography, made me realise that I didn’t have to stop, so I decided to travel in search of unknown lands and populations. It was the beginning of an extremely significant journey for my career.

Although this isn’t the case, these photographs have the perfection of images created in the studio. How did you “build” them, how would you define them?

I don’t define photos as reportage at all. There is great anthropological research for every image showing the everyday life of people who are different from us, but each shot was constructed with the meticulousness used on a fashion photoshoot. Nothing is left to chance. I photograph a flower in the same way I portray a model: both must seduce.

The perfection of your images is even more fascinating if you consider that they are analogue shots. What is your relationship with digital?

The arrival of digital technology and new technologies has completely changed the photography market. Delivery times are shorter and the ability to correct the image is faster. Nothing is real anymore and this takes away a lot of creativity. Nowadays, we rely more on post-production than on preparation. The research, the accuracy of the set count for little. I use digital as little as possible, not because I have something against it, but only because my sets are so perfect that I don’t need it.

In 2016, you established the Gian Paolo Barbieri Foundation. Why?

After many years of work, I realised that I had produced an inestimable quantity of photographs. I started in the fifties and I’ve carried on to this day. I can say that I have documented fashion since even before it was called that. Together with Emmanuele Randazzo, my collaborator and now director of the Foundation, we decided to make sense of this heritage, to create an archive and do something which could help new photographers to emerge, by creating a space which would allow us to support photography and every form of cultural expression in its different realisations.

The foundation also carries out training activities for young people. What is your relationship with those who are coming into photography?

Photography or not, I always advise every young person to build up a great cultural baggage. Culture is the basis of everything because through it we discover beauty; in fact, where beauty is born, culture is born, as the ancient Greeks said. Culture is the food of creativity.