A model spills her handbag: the best photography by Gian Paolo Barbieri

I have always been attracted to theater and cinema. When I was young, my ambition was to become an actor and as a teenager I enjoyed making costumes and sets with my friends. We experimented with light, trying to copy our favorite movies, like Sunset Boulevard and Tobacco Road.

I moved to Rome in search of a breakthrough in the film industry. I shot starlets at the Cinecittà film studio for a living, developing the film myself in the boarding house where I stayed. – like film noir and Fellini’s dreamlike vision – have influenced my work. I always looked at who I had in front of my camera with a cinematic eye.

I worked in fashion even though, at first, I didn’t know exactly what it was: the sector wasn’t yet well established in Italy when I started receiving commissions. Working with Gianni Versace was one of my most creative periods. We looked at the world through the same lens, understood each other and trusted each other immediately. Gianni had blind faith in my imagination, he gave me total freedom.

I lay flat on my back to fire, while the keys hung from the ceiling on a nylon string

This image belongs to a campaign I shot almost 50 years ago for Callaghan, when Versace was still working for the brand. Of course, the focus of a job like this is the clothes and all the elements need to line up to strike the right balance. It has always been a challenge to get everything to speak the same language. For this shot I chose a scene from the 1940s film noir The Postman Always Rings Twice, starring Lana Turner and John Garfield.

I was inspired by a scene that can only be explained with sounds: the sound of keys falling to the floor, the sound of rolling lipstick. I had had that scene in mind for some time: the challenge was to give an image to these sounds that had struck me so much.

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 she had a special ability to be able to play any role assigned to her and to throw herself headlong into her part. In fact, in the 80s she started acting.

For this, I recreated a room inside my studio, coloring the wall in a shade that best matched Susan’s clothes. I used my Hasselblad with a 50mm lens. The camera was balanced on the ground and I lay down on my back to take the shot. Using a 50mm lens, which was wide angle in the Hasselblad format, meant that perspectives would normally be distorted. To correct this, I angled the door slightly to make it appear straight in the shot. The keys are hung from the ceiling on nylon threads, holding them in mid-air to create the effect of dropping them from a handbag.

I used a mixed light, a flash and a continuous spotlight. It was a long exposure, two to four seconds, the flash blocked the movement of the model, the keys and the lipstick. When the flash was turned off, the spotlight remained on and continued to illuminate the lipstick, which was pulled by a wire held by someone hidden behind the door, thus creating the “trail” of the lipstick. Simultaneously, another continuous spotlight was lit on the model, who took a small step to her right, creating the “ghost” image next to her.

We did three other different takes with Susan, but this one was the most difficult. I’ve always done everything by myself, because every shot had a detailed plan behind it, from makeup to hair, set design, lights 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 they once had.

Curriculum vitae of Gian Paolo Barbieri

GianPaolo Barbieri. Photography: Flavio Lo Scalzo/Reuters

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 discovered Richard Avedon had a photograph of me hanging in his studio.”
Low point “The death of my partner Evar in 1991.”
High Council “Be passionate. If you’re not, you’re done. Even life itself shuts down.

• Gian Paolo Barbieri’s Unconventional exhibition is at Galleria 29 Arts in Progress, Milan, until 22 April.

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