MILAN — “The fashion world is a big star system where [a lot] happens, it’s a rather complicated world. I have lived through it for 50 years, and I have managed to do so because I have always kept a certain distance from it,” says legendary photographer Paolo Roversi at the end of a documentary about him.
Premiered on Tuesday at Fondazione Sozzani here in his and Carla Sozzani’s presence, the “Paolo Roversi. Il sentimento della luce” film will be shown on Italian national TV channel Rai Tre on Friday.
Produced by Rai Documentari, curated by Giuseppe Rolli and Martina Proietti and directed by Dario Migliardi, the film retraces the photographer’s career through key images and his anecdotes, offering a candid and intimate snapshot of his persona. Personalities including John Galliano, Naomi Campbell, Monica Bellucci and Alberta Ferretti make cameos, sharing their own stories about working with the photographer.
“When the lights of this [fashion] world go out, the Paolo that remains is a very simple Paolo. It’s this one on this beach, innocent and like a child,” he says in another frame shot not far from his hometown Ravenna, in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region.
Born in 1947, Roversi moved to Paris in the ’70s, working in his “Studio Luce” located in Rue Paul Fort ever since. The name of the studio references the photographer’s fascination with lighting, which has forged his unique style that combines realism and illusion and that defines his cinematic and misty body of work.
“When he starts taking pictures, you feel completely safe. Paolo’s direction is minimal but… you feel the light on your face, it’s a sort of dance with lighting. It’s all very natural: Paolo’s light is subdued but intense,” Galliano offers in a scene.
In recalling the work done together — from shooting his creations at Dior to personal portraits — Roversi defines Galliano as “the greatest designer alive and a fashion genius.” A 2005 sepia-toned photograph showing him in three-quarter profile with a hat on is among the key ones Roversi cites during the documentary and a favorite of the designer.
“I really think it’s a timeless image. It evokes the [Charles] Dickens’ London and all the things I love. It’s really special and I like to look at it every morning… It’s not vanity, but it makes me smile every morning. It’s one of my favorite pictures. It’s not a mirror but it reminds me who I am,” the designer says in the film.
“He has great respect for the people in front of him and somehow he gets into their soul,” offers Ferretti in another passage. “They no longer feel [ordinary], there’s such a harmony that it becomes almost a bit surreal.”
Bellucci remembers the first encounter with the photographer when she was young and she already had “an artistic exchange that enriched me a lot because I was standing in front of a man looking at me with kindness, curiosity and respect.”
Years later, the actress was asked to pose with her daughter Deva for Vogue Italia, another experience she said she remembers fondly because “when you work with your daughter there’s a sense of protection you feel as a mother that’s really particular.”
“The outcome was so intimate, so private and poetic that only he could have created this magic between mother and daughter. So in that moment, [the shooting] becomes much more than a fashion editorial, it was like a spiritual moment,” says Bellucci.
Through the years, Roversi has photographed numerous ad campaigns for brands ranging from Giorgio Armani to Vera Wang and lensed a wide range of international women, such as Rihanna, Björk, Annie Lennox and Tilda Swinton, to name a few.
Among other works featured in the documentary, the famed 2003 photograph of Natalia Vodianova for Egoïste and the painterly, soft-edged portraits of Princess of Wales Catherine Middleton released last year also stand out.
“One day we were contacted by the National Portrait Gallery of London, which asked us to take photographs of Kate Middleton for her 40th birthday. My idea since the beginning was to do something little regal, not portraying her in jewels and tiaras,” recalls Roversi. Even donning three different outfits by Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen, including an off-the-shoulder tulle gown with gathered ribbon detailing and a one-shoulder flower dress in red poly faille, the images conveyed a sense of informality, as the royal looks relaxed, her hair soft and wavy and wearing minimal jewelry. “I liked to portray her this way, pure and fresh, simple and modern.”
In addition to sharing anecdotes behind his works, Roversi also offers insights on his techniques and light painting photography, the result of using a pocket-size lamp he can freely direct to create different effects.
“He put me in the dark and started to do something with the light. I remember thinking ‘How will they see me?’ It was truly a magic,” recalls Campbell, adding that it’s “a real privilege to see Paolo at work.”
Roversi’s unique use of light has been informed by his upbringing and the colorful Byzantine mosaics adorning many of his hometown’s central buildings. “I grew up among these marvels and I think they had an influence on me and my idea of aesthetic beauty, for sure,” he says in a part of the documentary that spotlights Ravenna’s landmarks.
When in 2020 the retrospective “Paolo Roversi – Studio Luce” was staged at the city’s MAR art museum, the photographer considered it like a big homecoming event.
Sponsored by Dior, Pirelli and Place Vendôme jeweler Dauphin, the exhibition showcased a diverse selection of images, ranging from his first portraits of friends and fellow photographers Robert Frank, Anton Corbijn and Peter Lindbergh, to unpublished work for brands such as Dior and Comme des Garçons, as well as for international glossy publications.
Well-known images comprised a 1993 portrait of Kate Moss for Harper’s Bazaar and the 1997 one of Campbell for Vogue Italia.
“They are two completely different spirits and muses, but both very interesting, captivating and with a big personality,” says Roversi in the documentary. “I met Naomi when she was very young. She was a statue, a beauty like the Venus de Milo, like Nefertiti, like all those beauties that go through centuries. A divinity, really… You could remain enchanted to look at her — and also to photograph her.”
On her end, Campbell underscores that Roversi “changed the way fashion photography was made, and made us all extraordinary,” additionally crediting him for having been a “support in my life and my career.”
A selection of images taken for the 2020 Pirelli calendar also feature in the documentary, as Roversi says it was a dream to get offered that opportunity and become the first Italian photographer tapped for the role. For the occasion, he reinterpreted Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” and created the concept of “Looking for Juliet” merging photography and, for the first time, film.
As reported, in an 18-minute short movie Roversi cast himself as a film director who interviews actors for the role of Juliet. One-by-one, would-be Juliets — including Emma Watson, Kristen Stewart, Claire Foy, Indya Moore, Rosalía, Chris Lee and Mia Goth, among others — pass in front of his lens to portray the multifaceted character, displaying a broad range of emotions.