Paolo Roversi: llum natural, bellesa sobrenatural

Susan Reich, Photo District News March 2005

Paolo Roversi On The Mysteries of Light

The legendary fashion photographer talks about flashlights,

sunlight and his love affair with beauty.

« For me, light is life – and the first light that I see is the

sun », says Italian-born fashion photographer Paolo Roversi. « So

when I think about light, I think about the sun and nothing else.

Window light is the most important light for me. When I take a

picture using window light, I always think about what a long trip

the light is making to reach my subject. »

Speaking by phone from his home in Paris, Roversi pauses, perhaps

reluctant to discuss the impulses behind his creations. His

technique ‘ is not at all rational ’, he confides.

«My studio is a place for the chance, the dream, the imaginary to

prevail. I give these forces as much space as I can. »

While he prefers « to be lost in the mystery of it all », he

recognizes that there is a single motive at work in his

creations. « I am always in search of beauty. This I know for

sure. Beauty is something that attracts me completely all of the

time and pushes me far in search of something. »

In an industry that has glamorized grunge, misogyny and heroin

chic, Roversi’s reverence for his female muses has remained a

constant. His images have been described as « romantic »,

« tender », « ethereal », « erotic » and « exquisitely

beautiful ».

PDN: You never use strobe to illuminate your images. Why is that?

Paolo Roversi: I like longer exposures because, in general, my

photography is about portraits. I even consider my nudes to be

portraits. The eyes are very important in every portrait. I can’t

explain technically why the look of the subject is more deep, more

touching, more human if the photographer uses a long exposure for

the shot, but it is. I learned this from studying early

photographs, when the photographers were obliged to use longer

exposures. The portraits looked much deeper.

PDN: So what types of lighting sources do you use?

Roversi : I work primarily with HMI lights, Mag-Lite flashlights

and window light.

PDN: Do you have a favorite?

Roversi: Window light. For me, it is the basis of everything. As

Nadar said many years ago, at the beginning of photography,

« Everyone can learn the technique of lighting. What is very

difficult, and what you can’t teach is a feeling for the light, a

sentiment of the light. »

Lighting is, above all, not a question of technique, but of the

feeling. Because, even if you think it is a simple light, it

depends on where you put the camera, where you put the subject,

what you put behind the subject or beside the subject, the angle

of the sun, if there is a cloud in front of the sun. Anybody can

use a strobe, anybody can use any light – but to capture the

sentiment of the light – that is not so easy.

PDN : Has your approach to lighting changed much over the course

of your career ?

Roversi : Yes. In the beginning, my lighting was very stiff, very

different from today. I was taking a lot of care with the light.

Maybe the relationship between the light and me was young, so I

was a little bit scared of the light. But now the relationship is

much cooler – we know each other much better and everything is

much easier. In the beginning, like many young photographers, I

think I wanted to show what I was able to do with the light. I was

more narcissistic about it.

Now I am much more humble. I prefer to hide what my light is

doing. Now I work more in a way that the subject is dictating the

light.


PDN: You never use strobe to illuminate your images. Why is that?

Paolo Roversi: I like longer exposures because, in general, my

photography is about portraits. I even consider my nudes to be

portraits. The eyes are very important in every portrait. I can’t

explain technically why the look of the subject is more deep, more

touching, more human if the photographer uses a long exposure for

the shot, but it is. I learned this from studying early

photographs, when the photographers were obliged to use longer

exposures. The portraits looked much deeper.

PDN: So what types of lighting sources do you use?

Roversi : I work primarily with HMI lights, Mag-Lite flashlights

and window light.

PDN: Do you have a favorite?

Roversi: Window light. For me, it is the basis of everything. As

Nadar said many years ago, at the beginning of photography,

« Everyone can learn the technique of lighting. What is very

difficult, and what you can’t teach is a feeling for the light, a

sentiment of the light. »

Lighting is, above all, not a question of technique, but of the

feeling. Because, even if you think it is a simple light, it

depends on where you put the camera, where you put the subject,

what you put behind the subject or beside the subject, the angle

of the sun, if there is a cloud in front of the sun. Anybody can

use a strobe, anybody can use any light – but to capture the

sentiment of the light – that is not so easy.

PDN : Has your approach to lighting changed much over the course

of your career ?

Roversi : Yes. In the beginning, my lighting was very stiff, very

different from today. I was taking a lot of care with the light.

Maybe the relationship between the light and me was young, so I

was a little bit scared of the light. But now the relationship is

much cooler – we know each other much better and everything is

much easier. In the beginning, like many young photographers, I

think I wanted to show what I was able to do with the light. I was

more narcissistic about it.

Now I am much more humble. I prefer to hide what my light is

doing. Now I work more in a way that the subject is dictating the

light.

PDN: How does this affect the lighting decisions that you make on

a daily basis?

Roversi: I try to be very fresh, very spontaneous and very free

when I work. Sometimes, when I arrive at the studio in the

morning, the lights are just sitting in a certain way – however my

assistant left them – and I will just switch on these lights and

take a picture without changing anything. Chance is very important

to me.

PDN : How do you go about lighting an image ?

Rovresi : When I work in my studio, I always start with the main

light. The main light for me is the sun, even if it is a tungsten

source or an HMI. I always start with my sun. I set up one light -

with its one angle, one shadow, one direction, one intensity, one

quality.

Then, around this sun, I can start to maybe put reflections, to

put other little lights here and there and there.

PDN : What is it like to light with the Mag-Lite ?

Roversi : When I work with a flashlight, I work in total darkness.

I have to think about how long I will keep the light on different

parts of the subject. And I have to think about the direction that

I am moving the light in, because the quality of the light is

determined by how I move the flashlight with my hand.

It is like using a pencil in a way. A writer, or a painter or a

composer of music is filling a white canvas. But, for me,

photography is a black canvas. And on this black page, I use the

Mag-Lite to write with the light.

PDN : People will sometimes refer to lighting done with Mag-Lite

flashlights as « Roversi lighting. » How did you arrive at this

technique?

Roversi : Everything in photography is very old. Perhaps this

« technique » had not yet been adapted for fashion photography

because the model cannot move too much because of the very long

exposure. It is not so simple, but it is easy for me because I

work with Polaroid Film. I can see the result immediately. The

most difficult thing is establishing the exposure time_ how long

you keep the light on the subject. Sometimes it is difficult to

judge, and with the Mag-Lite it is a matter of a second. So you

have to move the flashlight very quickly. But I like this light

because it is completely irregular. You never know what will

happen.

PDN : Given the spontaneity you bring to your lighting, do you

ever find yourself lacking a necessary piece of lighting

equipment ?

Roversi : I have enough lighting equipment to do many different

things. I can always use another light. My lighting is not

dependent on a particular source. There are many different

possible ways to light a subject, and I choose one – the one that

is coming from my heart, that is all.

PDN : Are you still working primarily with Polaroid Film ?

Roversi : Most of the time, yes.

PDN : Are you shooting with large-format cameras exclusively ?

Roversi : Much of the time I still work with 8×10 cameras. This is

the reason that I work with one-second, two-second, three-second

and sometimes 20-second or 30-second exposures. I never mind how

long the exposure is – it is very rare that I shoot at exposures

that are shorter than a quarter second.

But I am very free about the things that I use. I have no

prejudice. I can use other cameras as well. It depends on what I

want to do. Sometimes I change cameras three times before I find

the right one. I’ll start with an 8×10 camera and two hours later

I am shooting with my Leica or the Linhof.

I also work with the Rolleiflex for the 6×6 cm and the Alpa for

the 6×9 cm. I like the little Polaroid SX-70s too and the Holga

plastic cameras.

It’s very subjective – and sometimes very arbitrary. I change

cameras for the same reason that I put more vinegar on my salad.

You never want to eat the same dish every night !

But my old 8×10 camera, my Deardorff, of course that is my

favorite. When I work with that, I feel at home.

PDN : Do you have a preference for hard or soft sources ?

Roversi : I prefer soft, indirect light-diffused light.

PDN : Where did you learn about lighting ?

Roversi : I don’t know if I’ve learned about lighting yet. I’m

still learning, still discovering. That’s why I like photography.

I never went to school for photography. I learned lighting by

working as an assistant. I learned by looking at the photographs

of the masters of photography and the paintings of the great

masters. You never invent : you simply take your influences from

the giants before you.

PDN : Your latest book, Studio – which will feature more than 100

photographs from 25 years of photography – is scheduled for

publication in September 2005. In interviews about the book,

you’ve been quoted as saying that the studio is not just a space

or a place, but a theater of the imagination – your observatory,

the lens through which you watch the universe. What can you tell

us about this book ?

Roversi : The subject of this book is very personal. It is an

ensemble of pictures of my studio, of the place where I work – of

the chair that I work in, my camera, my lens, all of my

instruments, my window where the lighting is coming from. Many of

the images are still life shots within the studio or shots of the

studio itself, and these are interspersed with sequences of nudes

and portraits of models.

PDN : Has anything influenced your lighting recently ?

Roversi : When I came back from my last trip to India, I could not

stop thinking about India in the moonlight. In my mind, I kept

seeing all of these little candles in the temples – and dust

everywhere. I was very attracted by this dust, because you see

more of the light with the dust. India, for me, was one big

shadow. Sometimes, I didn’t know what I was seeing in those

shadows : a man, a god, a cow, a stone – and the mysteries that

these shadows contained fascinated me.

So when I came back to my studio, I wanted to work with no light

at all. I began a search for no light – it was as if I were

searching for something deeper, because the light sometimes

reveals too much.

PDN : Is there a particular quality that you’ve been consistently

striving for in your lighting for different assignments over the

years ?

Roversi : When I look at my pictures from 20 years ago, even when

the technique of the light is very different, I see a kind of

unity, and this is surprising me a lot. Even in my book, Nudi, the

photos look like they were taken in the same place, in the same

light, on the same day. But they were taken over the course of 10

to 12 years, in New York, London, Paris. Sometimes they were done

with window light, sometimes with HMI, but of course the design of

the light was always the same. I think that in every image there’s

a skeleton of the light, and the skeleton of my pictures is a

little bit the same.

But I don’t think a certain light should become one’s style. I

know some photographers who screw a light into the floor of their

studio because they like it, and this becomes their style. I think

this is terrible. It is too much like putting the same jacket on

everyday because you want to be recognized and you are afraid that

if you change jackets you won’t be recognized anymore.

Your personality is not coming from your jacket or the cut of your

hair – and your photographic style should not be coming from a

lighting technique. Your photographic style comes from your

creative expression, from your esthetic, from the beauty that you

can bring to the image, the emotion that you can give to the

people who are looking at your work.

Biografia

Born in Ravenna, Italy in 1947, Paolo Roversi’s interest in photography was kindled as a teenager during a family vacation in Spain in 1964. Back home, he set up a darkroom in a convenient cellar with another keen amateur, the local postman Battista Minguzzi, and began developing and printing his own black & white work. The encounter with a local professional photographer Nevio Natali was very important: in Nevio’s studio Paolo spent many many hours realising an important apprenticeship as well as a strong durable friendship.

In 1970 he started collaborating with the Associated Press: on his first assignment, the Associated Press sent Paolo to cover Ezra Pound’s funeral in Venice. During the same year Paolo opened, with his friend Giancarlo Gramantieri his first portrait studio, located in Ravenna, photographing local celebrities and their families.

In 1971 he met by chance in Ravenna, Peter Knapp, the legendary Art Director of Elle magazine. At Knapp’s invitation, Paolo visited Paris in November 1973 and has never left.

In Paris Paolo started working as a reporter for the Huppert Agency but little by little, through his friends, he began to approach fashion photography. The photographers who really interested him then were reporters. At that moment he didn’t know much about fashion or fashion photography. Only later he discovered the work of Avedon, Penn, Newton, Bourdin and many others.

The British photographer Lawrence Sackmann took Paolo on as his assistant in 1974. Sackmann was very difficult. Most assistants only lasted a week before running away.

“…he taught me everything I needed to know in order to become a professional photographer. Sackmann taught me creativity. He was always trying new things even if he did always use the same camera and flash set-up. He was almost military-like in his approach to preparation for a shoot. But he always used to say ‘your tripod and your camera must be well-fixed but your eyes and mind should be free’”.

Paolo endured Sackmann for nine months before starting on his own with small jobs here and there for magazines like Elle and Depeche Mode until Marie Claire published his first major fashion story. A Christian Dior beauty campaign brought him wider recognition in 1980, the year he started using the 8 x 10” Polaroid format that would become his trademark. In the middle of the 1980’s the fashion industry was very keen to produce catalogues which allowed photographers to express a very creative and personal work: Comme des Garcons, Yohji Yamamoto, Romeo Gigli… all gave Paolo that opportunity.

Not only because of the large camera, Paolo has always preferred working in studio. In his first years in Paris, the studio was very often a room from his own different apartments, all on the left bank, until he found in 1981 the studio located in 9 rue Paul Fort where he is still working.


4 thoughts on “Paolo Roversi: llum natural, bellesa sobrenatural

  1. D’acord Roger, ja pensaré amb alguna proposta. En quant al Paolo, us recomano que si mai cau a les vostres mans el seu llibre “Studio” no deixeu de llegir la introducció escrita per ell mateix, tan exquisit com les seves fotos.

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