I’ve always been attracted to the theatre and cinema. When I was young, my ambition was to be an actor – and in my teens, I had fun making costumes and sets with my friends. We’d experiment with light, trying to copy our favourite films, such as Sunset Boulevard and Tobacco Road.
I moved to Rome in search of a break in the film industry. I’d take photos of the starlets from the Cinecittà film studio to earn a living, developing the film myself in the boarding house I was staying in. Ultimately, it was photography rather than acting that I pursued, but aspects of my first great interest – such as film noir and the dreamlike vision of Fellini – influenced my work. I’ve always looked at who I had in front of my camera with a cinematic eye.
I’ve worked in fashion even though, at the beginning, I didn’t know exactly what it was: the industry wasn’t 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 immediately. Gianni had blind faith in my imagination, gave me total freedom.
This image belongs to a campaign I shot almost 50 years ago for Callaghan, when Versace still worked for the brand. Of course, the focus of a job like this is the clothes and all the elements need to line up to achieve just the right balance. It was always a challenge to make everything speak the same language. For this shot, I chose a scene from the 1940s film noir The Postman Always Rings Twice, with Lana Turner and John Garfield as the leads.
I was inspired by a scene that is explained only by sounds: the clatter of keys falling to the ground, the noise of a lipstick rolling. I’d 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 be able to interpret any role assigned to her and throw herself into the part. In fact, in the 1980s she broke into acting.
For this, I recreated a room inside my studio, colouring the wall in 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 lay on my back to take the shot. Using a 50mm lens, which was wide-angle in the Hasselblad format, meant the perspectives would normally be warped. To correct this, I tilted the door slightly to make it look straight in the shot. The keys are hanging from the ceiling on nylon threads, keeping them in mid-air to create the effect of them 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. Once the flash had gone off, the spotlight stayed on and continued to light the lipstick, which was pulled by a piece of thread held by someone 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” picture beside her.
We took three more different shots with Susan, but this was the most complicated. I always did everything myself, because each shoot had a detailed plan behind it, from makeup to hair, set design, lighting and props. Nowadays there are many departments with specific roles for different individuals, drastically reducing the photographer’s creativity. Fashion photographers no longer enjoy the freedom we once had.
Gian Paolo Barbieri’s CV
Born: Milan, Italy, 1935
Trained: Self-taught after working for Cinecittà in Rome and Tom Kublin in Paris.
Influences: “Cinema, pictorial art, sculpture, literature, Richard Avedon, P Horst, Mapplethorpe, Bacon, Magritte, Matisse, Holbein, Hopper, Hockney.”
High point “When I found out that Richard Avedon had a photograph of mine hung in his studio.”
Low point “The death of my partner Evar in 1991.”
Top tip “Be passionate. If you aren’t, you’re finished. Even life itself turns off.”