Paolo Roversi is the past and the future in one. He never set out to be a fashion photographer, though he is one of the most referenced in the world. His is the great paradigm of signature; of identity. He is the only photographer who truly owns his colour palette. The young man who left Italy to conquer, by chance, la mode Parisienne has become the inspirational story of our times. Despite his precision and constancy over 47 years of photography, he continues to surprise. His sweet voice salutes me on the phone; my heart beats faster when I ask my first question…
Motwary: Mr Roversi, why do you think photography has been such an interesting art form for so many years?
Roversi: I think photography is such a fantastic medium. When it was first introduced in the 19th century, the first important thing about it was that it became a vehicle for presenting reality. Paintings and sculptures were just representations, no? Photography is exactly a mirror; it reflects the form identically to what it really is. I think this is the magic about it. For me it’s something more, though. It’s a revelation and many other things.
Motwary: You have insisted on working with a Polaroid camera since the ’80s. How did this obsession start?
Roversi: As soon as I discovered this type of film I was enchanted by it. Even now I still feel this way and I cannot justify the reason. You know how you fall in love with something—maybe it was the colour, the contrast. It became my palette immediately. I also started to work with this camera for its size, the 8×10 format. Taking pictures one by one is a slow procedure. I found my way through this camera— how to work. It was the ideal way to express myself. By now, I know it very well. It has become a part of my skin; my blood.
Motwary: How do you cope with current demands for digital photography, retouching and video? Do you feel threatened?
Roversi: No, no. I am not against any new techniques. I work with Polaroid, but I also work with film, photo booths and plastic cameras, even. I have no complex about trying new things because at the end of the day, we are talking about new techniques. Everything is about the light. I wouldn’t mind if there was no more Polaroid, because I can always find a new way to tell my story.
Motwary: There is an obvious consistency in your photographs. What makes your work so interesting, do you think?
Roversi: [laughs] I don’t know if it is interesting! I hope it is, at least for somebody. I think my photography is honest—it’s a reflection of who I am, what I feel. By using the senses, I try to be a bit more personal; to show a piece of me in my work.
Motwary: With your older work, the passage of time makes it look more current than when it was first published. How do you look at your past photographs?
Roversi: They are part of my life, my photographic life. I do go back to them, but not because I don’t want to live in the present. Every time, I hope that my next picture will be the best one, that tomorrow I will take another one and another one. But when I look at my old work I am touched, because I have memories attached to each one, and the feelings come out again. Sometimes I even see them in a new way, more exciting than when I shot them. When I take a picture I am always surprised, and this makes me happy, because the result is always different from what I expected.
Motwary: So, in a way, you seek advice from the “old” you about how to be the “new” you.
Roversi: Yes, exactly. Sometimes I find things I didn’t notice when I first took the picture.
Motwary: How do you always manage to photograph the most exquisite garments in the market, and how does couture help you create your images?
Roversi: I always say that the designer is the composer of the music, and the photographer plays the instrument—is the interpreter of the piece. I am the player and the designers are the composers, and it’s very important for me to have this music in front of me, playing it the way I like it, and within it, to create this certain kind of woman or man. The dream of couture is very important in what I do. Some designers, like Yohji, Margiela, Galliano, they inspire me so much. They all showed me a different way, a suggestion, full of feeling, another perspective with which to look at a woman or a man and how to portray them. You know, my favorite fashion picture is always a portrait of a woman, but with such beautiful dresses, the idea of the portrait is always changing. Thanks to them, I have a different point of view.
Motwary: Your models, there’s always something very honest about them.
Roversi: I work in a very simple way with them. When I discover them, I always try to find something that touches me in their faces, if there is a deep exchange and a little mystery about them. They make me dream: through them, everything becomes exiting. I am very seduced by the strange beauty they offer and the question of whether I can touch or not, whether I can discover or not. The truth is, I like to be lost when I look at them.
Motwary: I would like to ask about Nevio Natali. It was in his studio that it all started for you.
Roversi: That was a long time ago. But still in my heart. Although Nevio was a commercial photographer, he was the one who showed everything to me. As you know, I never went to photography school. He taught me all the basics at his studio: the speed, the use of film, the lenses, how and when to focus—everything. And it’s very important, as technique alone is not enough to express oneself in this language.
Motwary: Why would an Italian choose Paris as his base?
Roversi: It was by chance, honestly, but I guess I can say the same of most of the things in my photographic life. Many of my pictures happen by chance. And it was by chance that I met this other photographer in Italy, who asked me, “Hey Paolo, why don’t you come to Paris?” So I came. When I arrived, fashion did not interest me at all. It was in Paris that I discovered fashion, through some friends of mine who were working in the business. Then I discovered the magazines and the great fashion photographers: Avedon, Penn, Newton, Bourdin. I was immediately carried away by all this wonderful work of theirs, and by the magazines, their creativity, their elegance. Of course, I was seduced by Paris too!
Motwary: Has your view of the city changed over the years? Do you ever intend to depart?
Roversi: No, I don’t think so, though every time I go to Italy I ask myself, “Why do I live in Paris?” Because I love my birthplace.
Motwary: Your family is there, no?
Roversi: Yes, and it feels like my country, you know? Italy is the home of the language I can express myself with the best, my food, my sky, my clouds, my wind and my fog. Because where I lived as a child used to be very foggy in the wintertime.
Motwary: Are your origins reflected in your photographs?
Roversi: Very much! Sometimes critics see this influence and I go, “Wow,” because I see it too. Within them I carry my childhood, and things like the Byzantine mosaics from Ravenna, or a painting of a Madonna as it was placed in my mother’s house, even the hair, this kind of thick texture. But really, I don’t want to analyze this too much. I like things to be left unexplained.
Motwary: What is your perspective on gender? If you could eliminate it from society, would you do it?
Roversi: This is a good question! But I think I would keep it as it is.
Motwary: When is the moment a man or a woman looks most beautiful?
Roversi: When they are in love. Or, even better, when they make love.
Motwary: Do you compromise with your stylists?
Roversi: No, I do not compromise, because we work together. Fashion photography is a result of teamwork and I always try to keep the energy and the creativity, the style and everything that the stylist creates, and to enrich the story with anything anyone in the team can bring to it. I don’t want to direct too much or be too powerful. So it’s a question of keeping it together and analyzing it in order to get a good picture that will satisfy us all… that we all have the same dream.
Motwary: Why do you work mostly with women? Is it intentional, or simply a matter of commission?
Roversi: It’s a matter of commission, since I work mostly with women’s magazines rather than men’s. There are many more men’s magazines now than when I started. Maybe there was L’Uomo Vogue back then, though I’m not sure…
Motwary: How different is it for you to express yourself through moving images rather than photography?
Roversi: Sometimes it is different, sometimes not. I think that photography and film are very close, though in film I find it difficult to keep it relevant to my photography. It all depends on the story, the script. I have not done so many films yet—they are so few compared to my photographic work.
Motwary: What about social media—do you think the industry is shifting from the print to the web, from the time- less to the ephemeral?
Roversi: This is already happening anyway, so even if I say yes or no, it’s better or worse, it wouldn’t change anything. Anybody can see how things are moving right now. Of course I was educated to see a photo-graph as an object rather than an image, not just a Polaroid floating on some computer screen. One can smell and touch, worship and frame a photograph; put it on a wall, on a table, in your pocket. Things have become much more ephemeral these days. Things appear and disappear on the screen of an iPhone or a computer, and see you later! I really miss the family album and the pictures you put in a wallet. Now every- body has a screen. One of my favorite memories of my father was the picture of us, his children, in his wallet. I’m nostalgic.
Motwary: How did you feel when fashion started taking a more flashy, commercial turn about a decade ago, with Mario Testino and then Terry Richardson?
Roversi: This is good! I think it is how this business works. Fashion is moving every month, and the same goes for fashion photography. The worst thing for someone in fashion is to be called a ”has-been”. All these people bring new, fresh things in. It’s not a question of quality any more. It’s about new energies, new ideas.
Motwary: Agreed, but in the ’70s or ’80s, for example, we had craftsmen like Guy Bourdin or Helmut Newton. Is fashion becoming more laid-back?
Roversi: Of course I am not going to compare Testino to Newton—each of them has his own vision and approach. Indeed, things have become easier with all these new cameras and technology. The quality too. But this is part of the times we are in. If you compare the way Balenciaga or Dior made a dress back then to how it’s done now, you can see that nothing is the same. It’s not about the flash, it’s what our times demand to see. Everything is faster now. You know, Guy Bourdin could take three or four days on 10 pages or even more. Now Testino or Richardson has one day for 20 pages. So yes, times have changed.
Motwary: How do you see the future of photography?
Roversi: I don’t have a crystal ball in front of me. [pauses] I’ll go upstairs, take the next picture and I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you tomorrow.
Interview originally published in Dapper Dan, Issue 04, October 2011; Special thanks to Stella Roversi