I spent two nights looking for my notes on Paolo Roversi: yet another misplaced box. Never having to move could be my goal in another life. But I remember our meetings perfectly, in that unattractive street in the 14th arrondissement where I grew up, near Porte d’Orléans in Paris. He had—still does—a raspy voice, softened by a slight Italian accent, quite hypnotic. At the time when Paolo Roversi drove a Citroën 2CV, I was a fan of Tina Modotti and Rogi André; I also had a weakness for the Hungarians of Paris, Brassaï and especially André Kertész, on whom Agathe Gaillard*, his gallerist, wrote an incomparable book published by Belfond in 1980.
I think, but I am not entirely sure, that before seeing Paolo Roversi in his studio in Paris, I had met him in Monaco and perhaps in Barcelona at a photography festival. But it’s hard to picture him anywhere else but in his Luce studio, crammed with books, books, and more books, and otherwise bare (so no vampires); a place where you instantly feel at home, ready to be immortalized in this custom-made setting. Over the years, the studio had become even more comfortable, but never quite spick and span, because Paolo Roversi is ever the same.
Roversi was born on September 25, 1947—the same year as Polaroid—in Ravenna (Emilia Romagna), where he did his first reportage on the local pine forests, where Michelangelo Antonioni shot The Red Desert. To his surprise, when the film was developed, there was nothing: “The wild horses, the wind, the smell of the pines, everything I had thought I could pack into my picture had disappeared… Photography is a language that you have to learn, and I only knew how to stammer.”
He dreamed of becoming a conductor and practiced with his mother’s knitting needles. After some studies in Bologna (law) and a long stay in Venice (love), following the advice of the Renaissance man Peter Knapp he headed for Paris in November 1973. He learned the ropes alongside the fashion photographer Laurence Sackman (1948–2020)—“then a household name like Bourdin or Newton”—who showed him how “to be a professional. How not to compromise one’s vision, the client, the image. Be ready to do anything to construct a photograph. While an amateur stops at the third hurdle, a professional goes all the way. It’s not a question of money or equipment, only of ethics.”
Ethics: the word encapsulates Roversi’s photography in the world he chose “by chance,” or which, “by chance,” chose him, that is, the world of fashion. He wasn’t going to lay at its feet, but rather take away any vanity: No glitz, no garish colors, no embalmed bodies or bodies martyred by reframing. Nothing pretentious, only a certain agility. We know how much fashion sometimes sends into hysterics those who make it and those who wear it or comment on it, provoking metamorphoses worthy of Molière’s Précieuses ridicules. Few photographers have been able to resist this seductive spectacle.
“Every photograph is a portrait,” reminds us this heir of Nadar, thus indicating that he belongs to a medium that “makes things appear.” Like Nadar, he pursues “intimate resemblance.” Besides paper collections crafted for fashion magazines, such as the famous Vogue Italia, then headed by Franca Sozzani, Paolo Roversi enjoyed some young female nudes and models, whom he brought together in his first book, Nudi, published in 1999 by Stromboli. “Every photograph is revealing, but nude portraits reveal a lot of things. Portrait is not only an aesthetic gesture, it also has a psychological dimension. Nadar showed that well! Not to sound religious or anything, but I think photography is above all the representation of the unknown, of unreality. To me, photography is a dream.”
What was he looking for? “The truth! These girls are always dressed up, and I wanted to unveil them, to try to show their souls. I was looking for emptiness, because it is in emptiness that one can hope to see some truth emerge. We were alone in the studio, they had no make-up, their hair was undone, and I asked them to do nothing. I would shoot when there was a kind of emptiness, decompression, desert, and some spark. The spark is the emotion, these waves that bounce off between the model and the photographer. If there is no emotion in the shooting, there will be no emotion for the viewer.”
Once considered anecdotal, emotion has once again become a stable value in photography. We can openly celebrate it. Is there a visual scale for emotion? According to Roversi, emotion is the mystery that envelops his portraits and lends them more than a sense of strangeness, of separateness, on the brink of dream. To someone who “is obsessed with reproducing reality and paranoid about stopping at the surface of things,” every photograph must dig deep. “I have a slightly mystical vision,” Roversi says, advocating sincerity: “a photo is never a lie.” His latest celebrity shoots include Kate, now Princess of Wales, and, who knows, future Queen of England; “a wonderful person,” whom he photographed at Kew Gardens on her fortieth birthday (with little makeup), and whom he wanted to show as “timeless.”
Time is also a photographer’s ally when the images begin to take off. Speaking about his exhibition at the Camera Obscura gallery in Paris, Roversi said: “Putting a photo on the wall is the most demanding and the most precious thing. It is another way of expressing oneself; the status of the image changes, and so does its story. It’s a kind of verification of its strength, like the consecration of the photographs. They become less dependent on the media, and more abstract. Freer. Purer. For those images that fit on the wall, it’s a life achievement.”
Among the thirty photographs on display, my favorite: a reindeer. A real reindeer, totally royal.
Paolo Roversi, “Portraits” Camera Obscura gallery, 268, boulevard Raspail, 75014 Paris. Until October 29, 2022.
*Agathe Gaillard, Mémoires d’une galerie, Gallimard, 2013
*Paolo Roversi at Luce studio, Paris, September 23, 2022 © Clara Belleville
Cover picture: Paolo Roversi at studio Luce, Paris, November 23, 2022 © Clara Belleville