Photography Technique

Gian Paolo Barbieri elevated fashion photography

NUDITY ISso strong and pure”, says Monica Bellucci, an Italian actress and model. “The moment you photograph a naked body, for some reason, you always get the picture”. She is speaking in “The Man and the Beauty”, a forthcoming documentary about Gian Paolo Barbieri, a Milanese fashion photographer. Ms Bellucci has been something of a muse to him since she began modelling in 1989 and he photographed her nude several times.

“Working with Gian Paolo is special, unique”, she continues, emphasising the “environment of total trust” between them. “He looks at you in a way that [makes] you feel at the same time enhanced and respected.” In the film, she lies in a pool of water during a shoot for a GQ calendar in 2001, wearing a dress that resembles cling film. Later, Mr Barbieri plunges into another tank and fusses with equipment to secure the perfect shot.

It is this attention to detail that helped Mr Barbieri secure his reputation as one of the greatest living fashion photographers. He is part of a generation of artists such as Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton and Irving Penn who blurred the line between fashion and fine art. Over the course of his decades-long career he has captured fashion legends and celebrities—Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Donatella Versace and Vivienne Westwood, to name a few—in striking black-and-white portraits (pictured, below). Many of these images are on display at “Gian Paolo Barbieri: Unconventional”, a retrospective of his work at 29 Arts In Progress Gallery in Milan. It also marks the first time that several of his colour photographs are being exhibited.

From the day he picked up a camera, irreverence and inventiveness have defined his approach to photography. His earliest attempts were taken on the terrace of his family home in Milan: a young Mr Barbieri styled his friends as characters from novels, paintings and films such as “Sunset Boulevard” (1950), using fabrics pilfered from his father’s textile factory. He is mostly self-taught, with the exception of a stint in 1958 shooting starlets on set at Cinecittà, the film studio in Rome where “Cleopatra” was made.

Cinema was a source of inspiration for the photographer, whose work draws on Italian Neorealism and the dramatic lighting of film noir. He particularly admired the Italian film-maker Federico Fellini; the women in Mr Barbieri’s photographs give off the same mix of sophistication and sex appeal as Anita Ekberg in “La Dolce Vita” (1960).

After a short apprenticeship in Paris with Tom Kublin, a photographer at Harper’s Bazaar, Mr Barbieri returned to Milan in 1962 and opened a studio there. His work was published in Novità the following year, which later became Vogue Italia. This was the start of the relationship with Condé Nast that launched his career in high-end fashion and he began collaborating with brands such as Armani, Valentino and Versace.

In “The Man and the Beauty”, couturiers such as Domenico Dolce, Stefano Gabbana and Giuseppe Zanotti highlight Mr Barbieri’s creativity. He sought to raise the bar in fashion advertising, experimenting with neon lights in his shots. His image on the cover of Vogue Italia lit up newsstands in 1976 (pictured, below). In 1998, he hand-coloured a black-and-white photo that was inspired by the classic Rita Hayworth film “Miss Sadie Thompson”, imitating a technique popular with photographers in the 1950s.

One of the most memorable images in the exhibition depicts Yasmeen Ghauri, a model, in the Seychelles in 1993 wearing clothes by Gianfranco Ferré, another designer. She is standing in front of a dramatic backdrop that Mr Barbieri fashioned from enormous Ravenala madagascariensis leaves (pictured, top). Nowadays such a scene would probably be created on Photoshop. Fashion photography today is mostly digital; several luxury brands have shot global campaigns on iPhones in recent years. The deft, meticulous approach that Mr Barbieri pioneered feels all but forgotten. Then again, without his vision, fashion houses may never have realised the power of creative advertising.

The photographer has shied away from the self-portrait during his career. Now 88 years old and suffering from Parkison’s disease, the documentary is one of the few times he has stood in front of the lens. He is a reluctant subject. “I do not love being the focus of attention,” he says. All the same, the film and exhibition are important tributes to his towering influence on his field.

“Gian Paolo Barbieri: Unconventional” is showing at 29 Arts In Progress Gallery in Milan until April 22nd. “The Man and the Beauty” will be released on streaming platforms in Europe in spring.

Credits: All images © Gian Paolo Barbieri. Top: Yasmeen Ghauri in Gianfranco Ferré, Seychelles ,1993 Courtesy of Fondazione Gian Paolo Barbieri/29 ARTS IN PROGRESS gallery

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