There was a time, in the last century, when celebrities were not disfigured by digital retouching that would transform them into specters of docility. Willy Rizzo was the perfect embodiment of that simpler past, when every face was a gift in the play of light that matched his faith in human nature.
Who was Willy Rizzo, born on October 22, 1928 in Naples and died on February 25, 2013 in Paris? For over twenty years (1949–1907), he was one of the top photojournalists at Paris Match. This was the magazine’s fertile period, when it skillfully combined great reports, scoops, and celebrity columns, and its weekly circulation peaked at two million copies.
I met Willy Rizzo thanks to Serge July, the paper’s boss, who, I think, had spent a night playing poker with him: “You know he knew Marlene and Marilyn well,” Serge told me, impressed by this easy-going man who was on a first-name basis with all of Hollywood and who loved Alfa Romeos. It seems twenty-first-century teens don’t know who Marilyn Monroe was, even less Marlene Dietrich. If that’s true, the matter is as serious as the climate crisis…
On April 20, 2004, Rizzo received me in his posh apartment near the Champs-Élysées. He offered me some dark chocolate, his — and Christian Dior’s — guilty pleasure: “I’m crazy about it, but that’s nothing compared to Christian Dior. I’ve seen him work, spinning around his model, followed by an assistant holding up a box of chocolates. Here a pin, and then, pop, a chocolate, another pin, another chocolate, and so on… He would wolf down a box a day. He was addicted, and it killed him. Me, I can’t sleep without a little chocolate square.”
Willy Rizzo was a born storyteller and his life a photo novel. His mother dreamed he would become a magistrate, like his grandfather, but the little Neapolitan pictured himself on the big screen. He started out at the magazine Ciné Mondial with a Rolleiflex bought on the black market.
He then moved on to Images du monde, before embarking on his American adventure: New York to Chicago, to L.A. Before he was hired at Match, he had thought of settling down in Hollywood, where he knew every deity, female and male.
Mutual respect. About Marlene, he said: “She was a know-it-all, giving a lot of advice; for example, my tinted glasses annoyed her and my brown shoes too. She had a gift for never looking natural.” About Marilyn: “I photographed her in 1962, a fortnight before her death, she couldn’t hide her sadness… She was amazingly gentle and soft-spoken, nothing like her public image.” About Robert Mitchum: “He could impersonate Clark Gable to perfection.”
Rizzo’s Hollywood portraits, in black and white and in color, are amazing. The faces are not sanctified, they live and breathe. There is no perfectionism: the photographer does not aim to turn his models into statues; instead, he keeps himself in an engaged proximity, as if on equal terms with his subject. A shared reality ?
This was true journalism. People did not protest, because we were courteous. There was no question of photographing someone without his or her consent, even though we also took photos on the fly. I had a good reputation, I was kind and civil, which is essential if you want to win over the models or their agents. And I never refused to retouch an inopportune wrinkle…”
His miracle recipe: “There are no rules for photographing someone, especially when it comes to people who are constantly being photographed. Me, I like being just close enough. The eyes matter, and if you have no idea where to start, this can save you. It’s not hard to portray someone, but it takes talent. And talent is like love, it’s mysterious, nobody knows where it comes from.”
Rizzo always had a kind word for his peers, those at Match (“Jean-Pierre Pedrazzini, the most handsome among us”) as well as those he crossed path with here and there: Helmut Newton, with whom he liked to talk about paparazzi (“discretion, speed, patience, these are the qualities of paparazzi”); or Irving Penn, whom he met while doing fashion photography for Vogue: “He worked without any noise, without any music, even his assistant had to wear felt soles. Before each shoot, he had the whole studio painted black, only the spotlight on the object was turned on. I wouldn’t play any music either, and the girls would say, ‘Oh Willy, put on a record to wake us up.’ But I refused, knowing that they would forget about me and only think about the music. Penn was the numismatist of photography; for a single dress, he’d take a hundred photos.”
Despite his innate imagination, Rizzo was rather a classical photographer; he had a mind for synthesis, although he did not lack audacity: for instance, when he immortalized Bernadette Lafont in the nude as a Roman she-wolf—a “magnificent” portrait beloved by the gallery owner Agathe Gaillard.
Or when he conceded to Salvador Dali’s whim of having an opera stage set with a prima ballerina. Or when he had André Pieyre and Bona de Mandiargues pose as if they were rehearsing a play by Harold Pinter: she, her bare arms resting on her hips, a pearl necklace around her neck; he, on the ground, as if grounded by stage fright.
Abandoning photography, Willy Rizzo also designed furniture during his time in Rome: “Photography and furniture go hand in hand. I didn’t want Swedish furniture next to Warhol posters.” Rizzo’s furniture—sofas, swing tables, sideboards, lamps—was very successful and is still on sale.
For a while, he devoted himself to it, then returned to his passion, photography. His wife Dominique joined him in filing all his negatives piled up in suitcases. “I have always loved my job, I am proud of it. We were sometimes considered to be fake artists who copied life. However, the opposite is true: we have saved faces from oblivion.”
Select quotations are taken from Mes stars: L’album secret de Willy Rizzo, with text co-authored by Jean-Pierre de Lucovich, published by Filipacchi, and Agathe Gaillard, Mémoires d’une galerie, published by Gallimard, 2013.