Along with only a few other luminaries of his generation, Gian Paolo Barbieri helped to create the foundations of modern fashion photography. By pushing fashion photography beyond fashion commerce, the depth of Barbieri’s images forces us to consider them as art as much as commerce. I had the chance to ask Barbieri a few questions about being a pioneer in his field and what it takes to create a legacy.
For over 60 years, Barbieri has been one of the most influential international photographers in the world of fashion.
Collaborating on some of the largest advertising campaigns for international fashion brands such as Valentino, Gianni Versace, Gianfranco Ferré, Giorgio Armani, Bulgari, Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Dolce & Gabbana, and Vivienne Westwood. His work has filled the pages of Vogue Italia, Vogue Paris, Vogue America, L’Officiel, GQ, and Vanity Fair.
Barbieri has a new exhibit at 29 ARTS IN PROGRESS Gallery and an eponymous documentary biopic from Wanted Cinema, about his life and work, that will be widely available early in 2023.
Barbieri’s work is iconic and continues to be relevant today, decades after he started shooting. Barbieri’s work has such longevity because he photographs ideas and engages willing viewers. Barbieri’s photos aren’t just pretty pictures, they’re conversation starters.
Details Make The Image
Barbieri is known for his attention to detail on set. Nothing seems to be too small a detail for Barbieri in creating his images, ad campaigns, editorials, or personal work.
His stage is strict, meticulous, planned in the smallest details.”
For example, Barbieri’s images of Laura Alvarez immersed in the Orinoco River next to a caiman in Venezuela for Vogue Italia and Armani, 1976, is one of his most famous. Famous in part because Barbieri associated the pink of Armani’s collection with the characteristics of Venezuela, making the color a key element in the photograph and helping the image pop with relevance almost 50 years later. By using pink feathers and pink orchids traced back to the local flora and fauna present in Venezuelan nature and used in Venezuelan cultural costumes, the images aren’t just fashion, they’re about the place.
Digging deeper, Barbieri had Mr. Mori, a local craftsman, make plexiglass masks to help amplify Alvarez’s terror at being flanked by caiman and piranhas. By spending so much time considering each and every element of his images, Barbieri transcends fashion photography, creating surreal dreamlike images that allow for interpretation. His images engage his viewers, encouraging them to do more than evaluate the fashion trends of the day, to also ask questions about the images and their meanings, and to encourage viewers to involve themselves.
Most certainly the clothing that Barbieri photographed inspired his images. However, great fashion photographs go beyond the clothing alone, they try to make connections with bigger ideas and therefore create bigger images; images that inspire more conversation and ultimately consideration. Since Barbieri was a child, the attraction he felt for cinema, theatre, and art, in general, has always influenced the way in which he viewed the world. Barbieri’s curiosity to see and know more about the world around him has been the engine of his life’s work. A thirst for the new is something that helps Barbieri, and any photographer for that matter, to continue to grow and surprise, even themselves.
I have always loved art, in all its incarnations. Since I was a child the inspiration of theatre and cinema played an important role. Reading widely, studying classical art, looking to the great masters of the past or simply looking around me at what animated my surroundings, I cultivated my artistic eye.
In recent years, Barbieri has been working on a project inspired by Shakespeare, planned around the 4th centenary of Shakespeare's death. For Barbieri this project is about discovering Shakespeare through his own thoughts and vision. Here he chose characters from Shakespeare's works and interprets them in a modern way through his own lens. Again, creating space for conversation within the viewer beyond a simple reflection of common tropes and imagery.
Perhaps one of Barbieri’s greatest long-term influences is the idea of seduction. Not just purely sexuality’s seduction, though that certainly plays a part of it, but seduction in the sense of temptation and charm. Barbieri has spent much of his life trying to talk about attraction.
I have always tried to seduce with photography, for me photography means exactly that.
Seduction is everywhere in Barbieri’s work. It’s in the lines of his flowers, rocks, and surf in Tahiti as well as the curves and sexuality of his commercial fashion work. Fashion photography from the 70s, as much as fashion photography today uses sexuality and seduction to sell. I find it interesting that Barbieri’s idea of seduction tends more toward women that are more self-aware. In an era where the objectification of women or the gaze of the male voyeur is what generates big budgets, Barbieri’s work doesn’t seem like exploitation, it still feels like a conversation. Once again, an approach that affords his work a sense of relevancy that a lot of modern fashion photography, let alone his contemporaries, doesn’t have.
Barbieri mentions in the film that photography is different depending on who’s holding the camera. If you’re just photographing what’s in front of you, if you’re not asking questions, not examining your own ideas, not creating a conversation, you’re not creating a legacy. You need to be creating ideas, not just photographs.
I wanted to stop time to really understand the happiness that caressed me and instead it slipped through my fingers.
For Barbieri, the only regret he seems to have is not having stopped long enough to observe and listen to himself. By spending more time with your own thoughts and engaging in the world around you, your images will be richer, they will be conversations and ideas, not just pixels.
All images courtesy of Gian Paolo Barbieri, Courtesy of Fondazione Gian Paolo Barbieri and 29 ARTS IN PROGRESS Gallery.