“At twenty years old I was living in an attic,” he tells me. “It was a garret with no facilities in the Viale Majno area. I didn’t have a darkroom, I would be on my knees in the dark of night, developing my negatives.” It already has all the heroism of the beginning of a story, of a twenty-year-old in a society in the full swing of an economic boom. The birthplace of a legendary rise: the Roman Dolce Vita, the spell in Paris, the meeting with Tom Kublin, the certainty of his own role, his own talent. “The photographer seizes on all art” he tells me. “It was the encounters I had that shaped me, such as the year I spent with Visconti. Cinema was a part of my education: Rossellini, De Sica, Pasolini.” He mentions Pasolini to explain the symbiotic relationship between photographer and model to me. The artist’s ability to see beyond what all the others see. “Once,” he tells me “Isa Stoppi had trouble being photographed by Avedon.” He is calm as he tells me this, while I can feel my pulse pounding in my wrists. In what way? I ask. “She had a book of my photography with her and Richard shook his head. I can’t photograph you, Barbieri has already stolen your soul.”
Talking to Gian Paolo Barbieri is not easy, but not because of his character – he is polite, the perfect host. I went to see him at the foundation that bears his name. “Look what Pier Paolo Pasolini did with Callas,” he continues. I listen to him and I realize I am having trouble talking to him. I repeat, through no fault of his own. It’s me. I am face to face with the photographer who defined the concept of beauty, who has photographed the great divas of the last century – even created some. He talks to me as if what he has done and what he does is something normal, everyday. I ask him about the relationship between photographer and model and he doesn’t talk about himself. It makes me want to stop and listen, immerse myself in his memories, of when in 1959 he decided to be a photographer.
Since the Sixties, I say to him, tastes have changed, and so have women. He confirms this: “I saw dresses get shorter, I saw the change from skirt suits to miniskirts and hippies, I saw the changing shape of the female body, but ultimately the photographer remains the same. It’s the photographer’s culture that makes all the difference.” In other words, if you have a voice it can be modulated, but it will always be your voice. “I would go further: the model’s culture makes a difference, too.” In what way? “Models used to have more personality, more taste. They were professionals who did not indulge in tantrums. Those who did were what I called ‘ignoramuses’ and didn’t last the season.” What changed? “Maybe it was digital that changed everything.”
The reason for our meeting is to talk about an exhibition currently showing to the world for the first time 140 previously unseen polaroids. A kind of ‘making-of’ of the artist that is open to visitors until the 27th July: 29 ARTS IN PROGRESS gallery in Milan, 13 Via San Vittore. There is a before and after in photography, I say, continuing. Analogue and digital. Digital seems to have democratized the whole thing. We are all photographers now, I add, jokingly. “No“, he clarifies. “Today we all take photographs, but that doesn’t make us all photographers. A phone is not enough. You need the culture of seeing. I worked side by side with the creator of fashion, I am thinking of Valentino, I built my sets, my scenery, every shot was a work of art. Today everything is faster. Everything can be corrected on the computer“. Is that bad? “What have we got?“.
He pauses and takes a cherry from the fruit bowl. “I’ll tell you an anecdote. When work finally started to take off I got myself an old garage in Viale Plebiscito and turned it into a studio. There was a corner with a sun lamp and a space for massages for the models who came from all over the world, stressed, jet lagged, tense. Taking a photo took time“. To steal your soul, I add. “Today you can take a hundred, a thousand shots. Then you can touch it up on the computer. This has led to an artificial beauty, where there is less diversity, everything is the same. They are photographs with no personality that portray models with no personality“. Aren’t you going a bit too far? “I have photographed Twiggy, Veruschka, Lucia Bosé. The last generation of truly great personalities is behind us: that of Naomi, Schiffer, Linda Evangelista. Now they all look the same“.
What should we do? At this point, digital has won: we can’t even take a polaroid, the factory has closed down. “It is still the culture of the photographer that makes the difference. We shouldn’t be afraid of the latest technology, but we mustn’t get complacent about it”. He shows me the place we are in. “In the mid-eighties I got this dilapidated warehouse, a storehouse for paint, and I transformed it.” It is a charming place, a photographic set, renovated with minimalist elegance. “It was a time of crisis for Italian fashion photography, pushed out by the big national magazines’ provincial obsession with all things foreign.” Barbieri is considered to be one of the most influential fashion photographers in the world. “In those years I started to get interested in other things. Especially photographing the world. Travelling for myself, away from the fashion shows. Looking for the spirit of people, doing ethnographic photography” – to then come back here, to Milan? “Of course. This place is now a Foundation. I have an archive with over a million negatives. It is a laboratory of the image where I exhibit and do research. The Foundation wants to work primarily with schools and young talent.” What would you say to a young photographer who came to you for advice? “Buy books, study. Without culture, there is no photography.” He says this to me with a gentle smile. I observe him: in front of me is a person of over eighty years old. He seems dried out, a withered branch, fragile. When I offer him my hand as we say goodbye I feel the vigor of his handshake – an oak.