II have always been drawn to theater and cinema. When I was young, my ambition was to be an actor – and as a teen, I enjoyed making costumes and ensembles with my friends. We’ve been experimenting with light, trying to copy our favorite movies, like Sunset Boulevard and Tobacco Road.
I moved to Rome looking for a break in the film industry. I was taking pictures of the stars from the Cinecittà film studio for a living, developing the film myself at the boarding house where I was staying. In the end, photography rather than acting was what I pursued, but aspects of my first great interest—such as film noir and Fellini’s dreamlike vision—influenced my work. I always looked at who I was in front of the camera with a cinematic eye.
I worked in fashion even though at first I didn’t know exactly what it was: the industry wasn’t really based in Italy when I started getting commissions. Working with Gianni Versace was one of my most creative periods. We looked at the world through the same lens, and immediately understood and trusted each other. Gianni had blind faith in my imagination, and gave me complete freedom.
This photo belongs to a campaign I shot nearly 50 years ago for Callaghan, when Versace was still working for the brand. Of course, the focus of a job like this is the clothes and all the items that need to be lined up to strike just the right balance. It was always a challenge getting everything to speak the same language. For this shot, I chose a scene from a 1940s film noir, The Postman Always Rings Twice, with Lana Turner and John Garfield as the leads.
I was inspired by a scene that can only be explained by sounds: the clatter of keys falling to the floor, the noise of lipstick as it rolled. I had been thinking about this scene for a while: the challenge was to give a picture of these sounds that made such an impression on me.
The model who played Lana Turner in the shoot was him Susan Moncur. She was a wonderful woman, as intelligent as she was erudite, with a special ability to be able to interpret any role assigned to her and cast herself in the part. In fact, in the 1980s, she broke into acting.
For this, I recreated a room inside my studio, painting the wall in a shade that would work best with Susan’s outfit. I used Hasselblad with a 50mm lens. The camera was balanced on the ground and I lay on my back to take the picture. Using a 50mm lens, which was a wide-angle Hasselblad format, meant that the perspectives were usually distorted. To correct this, I tilted the door slightly to make it appear straight in the shot. The keys are suspended from the ceiling on nylon strings, which hold them in the air to create the effect of them falling out of a handbag.
I used mixed light, flash and continuous spotlight. It was a long exposure, two to four seconds, the flash was blocking the movement of the model, keys and lipstick. Once the flash went off, the light stayed on and continued to illuminate the lipstick, which was pulled by a piece of string held by someone hidden behind the door, thus creating a “trace” of lipstick. At the same time, another continuous light shone on the model who had taken a small step to her right, creating a ‘ghost’ image next to her.
We took three other different shots with Suzanne, but this one was the most complicated. I always did everything myself, because every shot has a detailed plan behind it, from makeup to hair, set design, lighting, and props. Nowadays, there are many departments with specific roles for different people, which greatly reduces the creativity of the photographer. Fashion photographers no longer have the freedom we once had.
Biography of Gian Paolo Barbieri
Boy: Milan, Italy, 1935
trainee: Psychology after working at Cinecittà in Rome and Tom Kublin in Paris.
Effects: “Cinema, photography, sculpture, literature, Richard Avedon, P. Horst, Mapplethorpe, Bacon, Magritte, Matisse, Holbein, Hopper, Hockney.”
high point When I learned Richard Avedon had a photograph of me hanging in his studio.
low point “The death of my partner Ivar in 1991.”
Top tip “Be passionate. If you’re not, you’re done. Even life itself is extinguished.”