Portrait of Fabrizio Gianni by Alan Peebles



Fabrizio Gianni. Say it in the Italian way and it rolls off the tongue like a plump black olive dropping onto the floor of a verdant Sicilian olive grove. You can imagine mid-twentieth century Italian screen siren, Gina Lollobrigida, purring it to him during the shoot for Mauro Bolognini’s erotically-charged Un Bellissimo Novembre, a 1969 movie on which they both worked; Lollobrigida as its star and Gianni as Bolognini’s assistant director.

Lollobrigida, by then one of Italy’s most bankable movie stars, was a keen photographer and would give the young writer-director a camera to take pictures of her while she was acting. “She said my pictures were very good and encouraged me,” the veteran fashion photographer recalls as we sit at his large kitchen table in Falkirk eating cheesecake and sipping super-strong espresso coffee. With Lollobrigida pushing him on, Gianni continues, he approached a young photographer called Roberto Rocco, who taught him the basics of lighting photographs in his studio. When Gianni realised by talking to other fashion photographers that they were making $1000 a week compared to the $70 a week he made as an assistant film director, it began to dawn on him that he might be in the wrong job if he wanted to make a decent living. With Italy’s film industry in meltdown following the international crisis caused by oil sanctions, it made sense to the young Gianni.

Although he went on to carve out a stellar four-decade long career as one of the international fashion world’s most in-demand photographers, cinema was Gianni’s first love. It informed all his photographic work and, even at the age of 76, his passion for film is undimmed. As a young filmmaker,Gianni created one of the most recognisable film characters in cinema history; El Puro. El Puro was brought to life by Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s so-called Dollars Trilogy of Spaghetti Westerns; A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).

Leone and Gianni first met in 1962 during a shoot in Munich, Bavaria. Following on from this meeting, Gianni helped Leone secure a co-production with Munich-based Constantine Film. It was during a dinner at the Franziskaner restaurant in Munich in 1962, that Gianni told Leone about his idea for the character called El Puro. It was a play on the Spanish word ‘puro’, which has the double meaning of ‘cigar’ and ‘the pure one’. Leone paid Gianni $50 for El Puro. Neither imagined the iconic status which this character — subsequently brought to life by Eastwood — would achieve.

Gianni’s switch-over from filmmaker to fashion photographer came in the early 70’s after a chance conversation with film director, Roberto Rosselini, one of his teachers at the film school in Rome. “I showed Rosselini a picture I had taken — I used to take presentation portraits of actors and charge them the price of a couple of rolls of film — and he said I should be a photographer. He asked how many well-known photographers I knew and I couldn’t name any. Then he asked how many well-known directors I knew and I could think of loads! ‘You see,’ he told me, ‘It is much more difficult to be a photographer. If I were you I’d be a photographer.”

With that advice from one of the greatest film directors Italy has ever produced, the die was cast. By then in his early thirties, Fabrizio Gianni took his talent for cinematic storytelling and creating memorable scenes on a film-set, and began to approach fashion photography in the same way. Between 1973 and 1980, he freelanced for several magazines, including popular Milan-based fashion magazine, Amica. “They used to need 350 pictures from fashion to product shots, each week divided up between different photographers. They paid per page and I became popular because I did everything and that way, I learned my trade. And I made a lot of money.” His name became known and the international glossies started to call by 1974 he started to work for Harpers Bazaar. In these heady days in Milan in the late 1970’s, he also met his wife Gail, a teenager from Larbert, who had been spotted by a local photographer in Scotland and snapped up by a Milan-based model agency. Ironically, the first photographer to take her picture in Milan was not Gianni, but Roberto Rocco, who had first taught her future husband how to take a decent picture.

Gianni has lived in Scotland for the best part of 30 years, but it’s like the home he shares with model-turned-Advocate wife, Gail, has been transplanted from his native Roma. There are vintage prints in elegant frames as well as photographs of Gail and their two now grown-up children Josephine and Rory (taken by Gianni, of course) all around us interspersed with typically ornate Italian decor and plant life; particularly cacti, which even thrive outside in his garden in all weathers. In the light-filled kitchen, a large traditional Aga-style stove sits beneath brightly-coloured floral ceramic tiles. There is even a stove-top espresso maker in his football team, A.S. Roma club colours, which — to Gianni’s delight — plays the fans’ anthem, when the coffee is ready to be served.

Fabrizio Gianni was born in Rome on 21 October 1938, just before the start of the Second World War. One of four children, his father was head of an international chemical company and at the age of 18, he was sent to study chemical engineering in Zurich. A year spent working in a lab in Germany for a well-known chemical company convinced him it was not the road for him so the following year, he returned to Rome to study political science at the university of Rome. As a means to earn money, he began working as a trainee journalist, but at the end of 1960, he signed up to do a course at film school in Rome. He earned his spurs there as a jobbing writer, co-writer, assistant director, second unit director, casting and location director. It set the scene for him to go on to work with some of Italy’s top directors. In 1969, he even wrote and starred in his own Spaghetti Western re-using the title Il Puro. The film is about an alcoholic gunman (played by Robert Woods) who is hunted down by bounty hunters. It was shown at the Venice Biennale in 2007 at an event curated by Quentin Tarantino and was hailed as a forgotten classic. One critic described it as the ‘first Zen Buddhist Western’ and pointed out it contained the world’s first ever gay cowboy kiss some 36 years before Brokeback Mountain burst onto our screens. Quentin Tarantino, cites its influence on his own 2012 Spaghetti Western, Django Unchained.

Although he went on to become one of the fickle world of fashion world’s most sought-after photographers for three decades, there is nothing precious about Fabrizio Gianni. Until he retired in his mid-sixties, his work graced the covers and pages of international glossy magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. Regular clients included; Elle, Marie Claire, Harper’s Bazaar Vogue, L’huomo Vogue, GQ and Madame Figaro. He shot everyone who became anyone; from model-turned actress, Andy McDowell, to actor, Sir Anthony Hopkins. In 1974 he was the first-ever photographer to put a black woman on the cover of a magazine when his photograph of top US model, Beverley Johnson, wearing an orchid fixed into her hair, appeared on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar Italia. He photographed American supermodel, Guinevere Van Seenus, when she was just 16, giving her a first break in the industry. He did the same thing with a young Charlize Theron. The stories of photographic firsts tumble into one another, yet today, Gianni lives quietly in Falkirk, playing golf and enjoying family life. Happy not to be jet-setting to international locations in the name of a day’s work.

Gianni’s output mainly predates the digital age so you will find very little about him online apart from in obscure blogs about photography or Italian cinema. But seek and ye shall find little references to his genius peppered around the internet. There are online comments here and there which indicate his stature as a photographer. On one blog, which praises his ‘beautiful, classy, elegant’ work and laments the lack of information available online about him, a flurry of comments follows on. Most telling are the responses from people who are clearly well-acquainted with Gianni and his work. One anonymous post from a blog posted in 2010 states: “He was the greatest. If you do a photo by photo comparison between his work and any of the more ‘famous’ photographers, they ALL pale by comparison. He was not glorifying the male (or female) form, he was capturing life in the most beautiful pictures that told a story as well. He only used models that were also real people, no make-up ever on males or females, just real life.”

The secret of his success, according to Gianni, was that he never regarded what he did as an art form. “I was a bit arrogant,” he confesses. “Photography wasn’t my passion. Cinema was. Coco Chanel once said that couture is not theatre and fashion is not art — it’s craft. Well, I believe fashion photography is craft.”

‘Getting it right’ is down to down to a mix of elements, according to Gianni, and that includes having a good-looking girl or guy, nice clothes, a stylist, fashion editor and last but not least; taste. “It’s more about fashion and very little about photography You take the subject in the light which you like. I use a Polaroid. Then I attack. I designed most of the photos before I go into do the shoot using a Pentax 6x7 camera. I sketched it out first.”

It is this painterliness which marks out all Fabrizio Gianni’s work, be it in celluloid or on film. He takes scenes which he has mapped out in his mind and on a sketch pad and turns them into ‘reality’ on camera. “An editor would call you and say they have this trip to Sri Lanka — could I maybe do something around it and in 30 seconds, I’d invent the story. I take a cinematic, filmic approach. He is fascinated by surrealism as an art form and it winds its way into many of his fashion stories. He has referenced the work of tragic Italian-born photographer, silent film actress and revolutionary, Tina Madotti, several times in his work, using her vivid life story as an inspiration for several shoots, which appeared in magazines such as Figaro Madame, Marie Claire and L’huomo Vogue.

Gianni’s attention to detail marks him out as a maestro of fashion photography. He says he learned this skill at the feet of directors such as Mauro Bolognini and Sergio Leone. In order to recreate a period in history, Gianni carried out exhaustive research, which would take him to the likes of the Washington Congress Library to make sure his styling was spot-on. This, he says, was something he learned while working in Italian cinema. He always sourced his own props for shoots; never losing sight of the fact he was there to sell a dream, whether it was a pair of Japanese jeans or an Armani shirt costing hundreds of dollars. In contrast to catwalk styling, his job, he says, was to make clothes look real. He preferred to work on location using natural light because as he puts it, ‘God is the best photographer.’

As the great surrealist photographer, Man Ray famously said, ‘If you want to photograph, throw away the camera.” This sentiment is writ large in the work of Fabrizio Gianni.

“Photography has many faces,” he says. “As many as the face in the photo. Whenever I read how good so-and-so is in taking a picture of so-and-so, I wonder if they have captured the soul of the subject.”

This article was commissioned for the catalogue which accompanied Fabrizio Gianni’s Fantasia exhibition at The Park Gallery, Callendar Park, Falkirk from 1 May — 30 August 2015

© Fabrizio Gianni From 1994 shoot in Mexico for Elle Italia
© Fabrizio Gianni Shot in Sri Lanka 1992 for Marie Claire International