Influential fashion photographer Paolo Roversi on nudity, the value of a good stylist and why logic has no place in creativity

Paolo Roversi

By Sven Schumann

Staunch fans of fashion photography view Paolo Roversi as a one-man revolution. One of the early adopters of the Polaroid, the Italian-born, Paris-based photographer saw the potential in the camera in the ’70s, years before many of his contemporaries did. Using the Polaroid’s filter and frame to accentuate fashion’s most immediate and delicate moments, Roversi’s style of shooting spawned a legion of admirers, including Carine Roitfeld and the late Herb Ritts. After working under Harper’s Bazaar lensman Laurence Sackman during his salad days, Roversi developed his own POV and began to shoot solo for Elle and Dépêche Mode. His work created such a domino effect in fashion photography that his style became the new industry standard in the ’80s and ’90s. Scrolling through offers a taste of his influential commercial campaigns for the houses of Giorgio Armani and Romeo Gigli, as well as his contributions to Paris, British and Italian editions of Vogue. Hot on the heels of launching his most recent book of photographs, Paolo Roversi (Thames & Hudson), the 64-year-old visionary sat down at the Camera Work Gallery in Berlin and spoke to FASHION about his iconic visions—past and present.

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How would you define your technique?
“My photography is more subtraction than addition. I always try to take off things [on set]. We all have masks of expression, and I prefer them to be off. I find that when there is emptiness, interior beauty emerges.”

Alongside your fashion photography, you are known for your nude portraits. When did you first start photographing nudes?
“My first nude portrait was in the early ’80s with Inès de la Fressange. I was supposed to do a simple portrait for Paris Vogue but I asked her to take her clothes off. I lit her in a white background to make a shadow appear in the frame— this really brought out the expression on her face. Then I tried [the same technique] in other sessions using the same type of lighting. After 10 years of photographing nudes this way, I realized that there were enough pictures for a book.”

How challenging has it been to get your subjects to relax in front of the camera?
“These are not girls working in a place where it’s unusual to be nude, like an office, so it is never a big problem. A few girls have said, ‘My boyfriend doesn’t want me to,’ or ‘I’m too shy,’ but sometimes a few months later they are ready to do it. Most of the time, it’s just me and them on set. They understand that what I wish to do is capture beauty.”

What are the most alluring parts of the body to photograph?
“The eyes come first. They are the most expressive. Hands come second. The lips and the mouth are tied in third.”

What do you do when you have to shoot outfits that do not appeal to you aesthetically?
“It’s almost impossible! Clothes can be such a big part of a subject. I treat every image as a portrait, so fashion ultimately becomes part of my interpretation of the image.”

Can a stylist be your saviour?
“A stylist can be good medicine. They can save any situation. Fashion photography is such a team effort. I need a lot of people to work [with me], so that many energies come together in the same project with the same dream.”

What role does spontaneity play in your shoots?
“There are a lot of different moods coming onto the set. Models, stylists and assistants are constantly travelling, so there is emotion everywhere. One is happy, one is crying, one is angry, one is sleepy. Even if you have a precise idea of what you want to do, you can’t [do it]. Everyone is coming in with all this different energy and you have to deal with them. So you never know what you’ll do in the end. I like the accidents, the things that happen by chance. I let real life come to the picture so the creativity can flow.”

You once said there is nothing logical about creativity. Why?
“There’s no logic in the realm of the imagination. It’s more about feelings, emotion and love. You can’t explain why you fell in love with someone because some emotions cannot be [described properly]. It’s the same for me with photography. You can’t explain a feeling and I don’t want to. I prefer to keep the mystery.”