Gian Paolo Barbieri, The Founding Father of Fashion Photography

Gian Paolo Barbieri, The Founding Father of Fashion Photography

An in-depth conversation with the renowned master of the camera lens about his inspirations and the next generation.

An in-depth conversation with the renowned master of the camera lens about his inspirations and the next generation.

Text: Danielle Combs

Innovative in his choice of his settings and stylings, Italian photographer Gian Paolo Barbieri developed an influential narrative and a personal style that's rigorous and sensual. Collaborating closely with many fashion designers such as Giorgio Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, and Versace, with whom he established the modern language of fashion advertisements, Barbieri also portrayed diverse key cultural figures such as Audrey Hepburn, Veruschka, and Rudolph Nureyev. When he turned to travel photography, he infused his images with the same powerful and sensuous atmosphere as his fashion photography, depicting nature and indigene people in a similar manner.

In an interview with V, Gian Paolo Barbieri reveals how he started his career as a photographer, his most treasured moments, and meeting Richard Avedon.

What inspired you or drew you to become a photographer?

It was something I had a passion from early youth.  Later on, when I moved to Rome to pursue [an] acting career, I met a man who became a good friend and who saw my photographs that I took to make money of other actors. He said, "You have a talent, and you should be going to Paris and pursue a photography career instead of acting."

At what point did your career as a fashion photographer begin?

Early ‘60s, right after I assisted a famous French photographer. Shortly after I assisted him, I started to do my own work. So 1965, I shot my first cover for Italian Vogue.

Describe your experience working with Diana Vreeland?

To work with Diana Vreeland gave me an opportunity to come work for her annually and shoot for American Vogue. This was a very big offer for me that I almost couldn’t refuse, but I was at that moment not very fluent in English. So my decision was to stay in Milan and Paris to pursue a photography career, but it was very great to work with her. She was a very big inspiration at that time.

What was it like having Tom Kublin as a teacher?

I was very fortunate to stay next to him for just 20 days. That’s how much I assisted him. After that, he passed away, but I was very fortunate. I learned a lot in terms of how to pursue photography. He demanded from us and his assistants, maximum perfection.

What is your creative process like when shooting a subject?

I try to understand the personality of each person. Some people have a better responsibility to the photograph and some not. I try to understand what is the personality and try to then find out what would be their best potential to take a picture.

How would you describe the evolution of photography since the ‘60s and ‘70s?

Today, everything is much easier and people don’t really think about the picture before taking it because there is no craft anymore behind it. So I don’t like digital that much. I still photograph everything analog.

I noticed at the beginning of your career there really weren’t many fashion editors. How did you decide on the narrative, the setting, and the styling for each shoot?

I agree. At that time, there were almost no fashion editors. And if there were, there were just a few very young ones that did not really know what to do. So at that time, the photographer and the models were in different sync. Models would arrive in their own makeup and hair, and I would make the set and style for the shoot. I would create narratives.

What was it like collaborating with designers such as Versace and Armani?

In the beginning, the circle of fashion was very small. The collaboration was very intimate. Everyone was very ready all the time to make something really incredible. We had the same cultural background. The designers were influenced by a certain cultural aspect, and the photographers were too. So the collaboration was very natural, very organic, and it was much different than today, where designers don’t come to set that much anymore. At that time, it was different.

What have been some of the most memorable experiences throughout your career?

One of my most memorable moments were when I met Richard Avedon because, for years and years, I admired his work a lot. He was a big inspiration. I went to the United States many times to meet him, but every time I went, Richard was either working or was busy and could not receive me. So years later, we were both working for French Vogue and happened to both be at the studio in Paris. In that moment, Richard approached me and said, "I’m a big admirer of your work. Let’s have dinner together." So that was a memorable moment.

What advice would you offer for young photographers looking to start their careers?

My advice to a young photographer is to absolutely be passionate about it because to become a great photographer, passion is the first thing. The second thing would be to study art because art is the foundation of every creative work. To understand the history of art is one of the crucial elements to become a photographer.

AUDREY HEPBURN IN VALENTINO, VOGUE ITALIA, ROME, 1969

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