Roversi and Dior: Intimate Images
There is something profoundly mysterious about our obsession with these sensitive spectra of colors and lines that we call photographs, something profoundly mysterious in our need to accumulate these
small likenesses of beloved faces, visited places, and events that marked us. When we look at these visual talismans, it seems we are always looking beyond the mere evocation of a memory, as if photography were not an instrument for recording reality, but rather a specific place that, on its own, allows certain events to take place and
certain beings to manifest themselves.
No photographer has questioned the non-referential power of photography better than Paolo Roversi. In his hands, photographs cease to be mere traces of the real and become instruments for the active transfiguration of the world. It is no accident that fashion is his favorite subject: like photography, it is an alchemical chamber that allows things to exist differently than they are.
To gather Paolo Roversi’s photos of the creations of the maison Dior in one volume is to question the dialogue between fashion and photography or, more precisely, between a designer and his photographer. “I always say that the designer is the composer of the music, and the photographer plays the instrument—or is the interpreter of the piece,” says Roversi. “It’s very important for me to have
this music in front of me, playing it the way I like it, and within it, to create this certain kind of woman or man. The dream of couture is very important in what I do.” In these words we could intuit a secret dialogue with Christian Dior, who wrote in his autobiography: “An artistic creation ... depends on another brain for its interpretation.” The need to interpret couture is not about the obscurity of the garment, but rather its wealth of meaning. Visually interpreting clothing through a photograph is not about making it understandable, but about deepening its mystery. Christian Dior again: “A detail which I had inserted without thinking, and which had become lost in the course of the execution of the dress will emerge miraculously ... through the objective lens of the camera, as a result of a curious angle or unexpected lighting.” If fashion needs to be “revealed” by photography, it is not just because of “the independence of forms from their creator”; it is above all because the dresses are not mere visions, but realized visions that pass from the world of dreams into the world of practical utility. “Photography,” also says Roversi, “is not life captured in an always present instant, but a phantom that remains in our hands.” The implied understanding between Roversi and Dior plays out exactly on this level: it was Dior’s task to make couture the space where condense “a thousand fleeting images,” which were “speedily imprisoned by the strokes of [his] pencil.” He also opened clothing to the line, to abstraction: with Dior, nothing is required anymore from fashion from a biological, social, political, or historical point of view. A garment becomes the expression of an idea, capable of transfiguring the body it clothes. Anatomy, in turn, is called upon to express an idea, a line, not a social status. The body, far from displaying its nature or its social condition, becomes the metaphysical space of an intellectual and aesthetic revelation. Fashion is nothing but the art of realizing visions. It maintains a special relationship with photography, for only photography can make the spectra visible.
Born and raised in Ravenna, Italy, Paolo Roversi arrived in Paris in 1973 on the advice of Peter Knapp, the legendary photographer who was able to make “photographs breathe” by placing them “on the ground, associating them, bringing them together, like a mosaic.”There, he discovered the work of Richard Avedon and Irving Penn; met Robert Frank, Guy Bourdin, and Helmut Newton; and became the assistant of Laurence Sackman, with whom he worked for a long time. Beginning in the 1980s, amid a cultural landscape in which photography was dominated by the rediscovery of documentary realism (which was launched by Ed van der Elsken and Nan Goldin before becoming a paradigm in the new-generation fashion magazines; the works of Wolfgang Tillmans are a good example of this) and by the sculptural value of the body (think of Bruce Weber, Herb Ritts, and Helmut Newton), Roversi developed a very personal style that was both original and immediately classic, far from the new naturalism (William Klein, Peter Lindbergh) and references to pop culture and avant-garde Pop Art (David Bailey, Guy Bourdin, and David LaChapelle). This timeless and yet immediately recognizable style was born from an important technical choice—the use of a 20 x 25 format Polaroid camera—but seems above all to have been nourished by remote references, closer to the illusionism of Roman and Byzantine art than to the visual and photographic culture he was working in.
The lack of sharp focus in much of his work recalls the very origins of fashion photography, as well as the pictorialism of Adolf
de Meyer. But, unlike the latter, his models are never fixed in a pose; just the opposite is true: all his photographs seem to be trying to
dig beneath the surface of the face—the visible soul of the model—to tear off the masks and poses that hide or mortify it. “My photography is more subtraction than addition,” says Paolo Roversi, referring to Michelangelo’s famous arte del levare. “I always try to take off things. We all have a sort of mask of expression. You say goodbye, you smile, you are scared. I try to take all these masks away and little
by little subtract until you have something pure left. A kind of abandon, a kind of absence. It looks like an absence, but in fact when
there is this emptiness I think the interior beauty comes out.” It is not about projecting unnatural elements onto the surface of the image to produce an artificial and surreal composition, but stripping the body of its opaque habits and freeing our gaze from the screen
of appearances. This is especially obvious in Roversi’s photograph of Dior’s famous Bar suit, the centerpiece of the Spring-Summer 1947 show, which had been photographed by Willy Maywald in 1954 and more recently by Patrick Demarchelier (in 2011) and Jean-Baptiste Mondino (in 2012, with Marion Cotillard). In Roversi’s photo of the Bar suit, the model is invisible, as if she had been entirely absorbed by her outfit. There is no backdrop: neither the legendary Paris of the 1950s, of which the Bar suit was one of the most perfect incarnations, nor the old instruments seen in the background of Demarchelier’s photo. The suit is no longer the embodiment of a way of life or an era, past
or present; it now seems to have its own inner light, simultaneously ancient and modern, a body whose density—like the glorified bodies of the resurrected in the Christian religion—comes solely from its own glory. It is no longer the simple expression of the elegance of a bygone era being evoked with nostalgia: it does not belong to time; it is a sort of simultaneous dawning of fashion and the body. Roversi’s photography always demonstrates that the body only becomes visible and encounters the light through the garment. This means that what we see in a photo is never the simple outline of a body, but the manifestation of a soul; on the other hand, there is no soul, no humanity that cannot be manifested photographically. Fashion, then, is only the impossibility of separating the inside from the outside, psychology, and the science of cutting, light, and color. Like Horst P. Horst or Irving Penn, Paolo Roversi works almost exclusively in the studio. But, unlike the formers, working in the studio for him does not equal to remove the model and the clothing from a recognizable historical and geographical context, as if to stress the anachronistic character and lack of a setting for the act of photographic seeing. On the contrary, the studio is only a technique for bringing together not only the object and the subject of the gaze, but also the world—regardless of whether it is past or present, real or imaginary. “My studio, says the photographer, is a rectangular room with a high ceiling, old wooden parquet flooring, and a large window facing north. It is like a tiny theater with an empty stage, a space to be filled ... The furnishings are modest: two stools, a carpet, some chairs, two or three lights, and an old blanket, which is my favorite backdrop.”
But, as with the emptiness of his subjects, the emptiness of the studio is not a sign of absence; it is, on the contrary, evidence of an excess of possibilities: it leaves the world room to appear, allows things to be mixed and merged in an atmosphere where everything conspires, everything breathes through the lungs of another. Similarly, placing the model in a studio does not mean drowning the subject
photographed in an abstract geometry of shapes, lines, and contrasts of light, as happens in Irving Penn’s most famous images. It makes possible, on the contrary, to expose him or her even more to the forces that shape the cosmos. Like the studio in classical painting, the photographer’s studio is neither a refuge nor a retreat from the physical and historical world; it is, on the contrary, an accelerator, an intensifier of experience, in the way a scientific laboratory is. “My studio is a place for the chance, the dream, the imaginary to prevail. I give these forces as much space as I can.” The street imposes limits, for “in the street, one must choose”; in the studio, anything can happen. And it is only thanks to this theater of the possible that photographs can accomplish their miracles: not only that of condensing disparate objects on a small surface, but above all that of organically mixing the emotions of the model and the photographer. A photograph “is a snapshot, says Paolo Roversi, in which everything comes together: my mood, that of the model, that of the crew. Everything goes into the picture: the song I heard that morning and the model’s heartache.”
Roversi’s poetics of the studio as a space of incubation for the real is translated, aesthetically, into the impossibility of distinguishing between background and figure in his photos—again, the exact opposite of what the choice of the studio meant for Irving Penn and Horst P. Horst. Most often, the lack of sharp focus makes it possible to erase any ontological boundary between the body of the model and the surrounding world by diluting them in a field of emotional forces that circulate freely between things and souls. Sometimes it is the intelligent, articulate construction of the frame that, on the contrary, produces a continuum between the face, the fabrics of the garment, and the background, as in the pictorial tradition of Italian Mannerism (for instance in the works of Pontormo). This principle can best be seen in two photos from the editorial spread A Lady in Spring, published in Vogue Italia’s So Couture supplement in March 2012 (with model Marie Piovesan and stylist Panos Yiapanis). These photos feature two pieces that have special significance in Dior’s history, for they are from the last collection designed by John Galliano for the Dior haute couture collection. The floral and vegetal motif—a shibboleth of Dior fashion since the house’s very first collection (the Corolle line)—sometimes covering the entire surface of the garment (as in the Miss Dior dress, Spring-Summer 1948 ; the Vilmorin dress, Spring-Summer 1952; and the Jardin Fleuri dress designed by Maria Grazia Chiuri for the Spring-Summer 2017 collection), is intensified and multiplied into a jungle. Thanks to a projection system, this jungle spreads with the same intensity over the photo’s background. The flower is not a principle of construction or transfiguration of the woman’s body and its anatomy; it becomes the form and content of the surrounding world. In this principle of image construction where the form does not stand out from the background, we see how close Paolo Roversi’s art is to Byzantine visual culture, which he immersed himself in during his adolescence and youth in Ravenna: the background loses its spatial value (that of container able to accept and prospectively distance the bodies shown) to become a visual counterpoint, a chromatic carpet into which the figures are woven and intertwined like purely decorative motives. This requirement is based on a different approach to vision: space does not exist outside the figures, is not detached from them (and therefore cannot exist in the image as a background) because vision does not exist outside, but within them.
This is not an arbitrary rapprochement: Nadar’s view, often mentioned by Paolo Roversi, of photography as a search not for mere resemblance but for “moral” or “intimate” resemblance is only a contemporary translation of this long illusionist tradition, initiated by the neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus. From this point of view, if photography is capable of capturing this intimate resemblance, it is because it sees, to speak with the Greek philosopher, “the place where the object is,” and therefore the vision is constructed in
the observed object. One could say that in Roversi’s hands, the camera becomes a prosthesis that allows the human eye to “make itself the same as the object seen so as to apply and contemplate itself,”
to coincide with the object photographed. And, in fact, a camera is the metaphysical space where, for a moment, the photographer’s eye coincides with the light and with the body of the model. This coincidence is not only physical, it is also emotional, ontological, and moral. And only through this moral coincidence can there be beauty in photography and can beauty coincide with mystery. The photograph is an “impression of light” only because “never did eye see the sun unless it had first become sunlike, and never can the soul have
vision of ... Beauty unless itself be beautiful.” This coincidence is what makes it possible for Paolo Roversi to say that “you don’t take a picture, you give a picture,” because “the picture is always inside of you.”