II have always been attracted to the theater and the cinema. When I was young, my ambition was to be an actor – and in my teenage years I had fun making costumes and sets with my friends. We would experiment with lighting and try to replicate our favorite movies, such as Sunset Boulevard and Tobacco Road.
I moved to Rome in search of a break in the film industry. I photographed the stars of the Cinecittà film studio for a living and developed the film myself in the boarding house I lived in. In the end it was photography rather than acting that I pursued, but aspects of my first major interest – such as film noir and the dreamlike vision of Fellini – influenced my work. I always looked at who I had in front of my camera with a cinematic eye.
I have worked in fashion, although at the beginning I didn’t know exactly what it was: the industry was not really established 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, understood and trusted each other instantly. Gianni had blind faith in my imagination, gave me total freedom.
This photo belongs to a campaign I shot almost 50 years ago for Callaghan, when Versace was still working for the brand. Naturally, the focus of a job like this is the clothing, and all elements must be aligned to achieve just the right balance. It was always a challenge to get everyone to speak the same language. For this shot I chose a scene from the 1940s film noir The Postman Always Rings Twice, starring Lana Turner and John Garfield.
I was inspired by a scene explained only by sounds: the clatter of keys falling to the ground, the noise of lipstick rolling. I had that scene in mind for a while: the challenge was to give an image to these sounds that had made such an impression on me.
The model who played the role of Lana Turner for the shoot was Susan Moncur. She was a wonderful woman, as intelligent as she was cultured, and had a special ability to interpret any role assigned to her and throw herself into it. In fact, she broke into acting in the 1980s.
For this, I recreated a room inside my studio, painting the wall a shade that would work better with Susan’s clothes. I used my Hasselblad with a 50mm lens. The camera was balanced on the ground and I was lying on my back to take the picture. Using a 50mm lens, which was wide-angle in the Hasselblad format, meant that perspectives would usually be skewed. To fix this I tilted the door a little to make it look straight in the picture. The keys hang from the ceiling on nylon strings, holding them in the air to create the effect of falling out of a handbag.
I used mixed light, a flash and a continuous spotlight. It was a long exposure, two to four seconds, the flash blocking the movement of the model, the keys and the lipstick. When the flash went off, the spotlight remained on and continued to light the lipstick, which was pulled by a piece of string held by a person hidden behind the door, thereby creating the lipstick’s “trail”. At the same time, another continuous spotlight shone on the model, who took a small step to her right, creating the “ghost image” next to her.
We took three more different photos with Susan, but this was the most complicated. I always did everything myself, because every shoot had a detailed plan behind it, from makeup to hair, scenography, lighting and props. Today, there are many departments with specific roles for different individuals, which drastically reduces the photographer’s creativity. Fashion photographers no longer enjoy the freedom we once had.
Gian Paolo Barbieri’s CV
Born: Milan, Italy, 1935
Educated: Self-taught after working for Cinecittà in Rome and Tom Kublin in Paris.
Impacts: “Cinema, visual arts, sculpture, literature, Richard Avedon, P Horst, Mapplethorpe, Bacon, Magritte, Matisse, Holbein, Hopper, Hockney.”
Highlight “When I found out that Richard Avedon had a photograph of me hanging in his studio.”
Low point “Death of my partner Evar in 1991.”
Top tip “Be passionate. If you’re not, you’re done. Even life shuts down.”