Barbieri did not start his career as a photographer. What we was most drawn to in his youth was literature, theatre and film.
When he moved to Paris to study under the great fashion photographer Tom Kublin, Barbieri brought with him a culture of the imagination that few others could boast.
This helps explain his rapid rise to success. Barbieri’s apparently “new”, modern photographs reflect the beauty of a déjà-vu, a vast cultural heritage that adds to the originality of his work something which was not the case with other photographers, for whom “citation” meant producing poor copies or fakes.
By contrast, each photograph by Barbieri is an artwork, regardless of the reason why it had been taken or of the commercial purpose it served.
When we gaze at Gian Paolo Barbieri’s photographs, created in a refined and light‐hearted spirit, we come to experience a visual theatricality that will blot out the surroundings to allow only the pictures themselves to stand out.
The ethnic research as an addition to Barbieri’s fantastic fashion photography brings some considerations to mind.
Despite their photographically sophisticated appearance, these pictures actually possess a classic simplicity.
The background is secondary compared to the human figures dominating the scene. These figures – the explicit or implicit subjects – are perceived so intimately as to engender a sense of manifest beauty.
Faced with these works, the viewer does not really feel invited to take any flight of fancy, since what we have – without too many hidden allusions – is a photography that delves into human emotions.
Through an evocative temporal sequence – from the subject to its skilled representation, from the real of life-like to its image – the steps taken by Barbieri become our own.
Barbieri comes to appreciate the fleshiness, vitality and aggressiveness of the flowers of Africa, the Amazon and Polynesia during the many travels in his beloved tropics.
He thus began photographing these flowers as an exuberant expression of nature, proudly displaying its most beautiful creation.
Whereas Mapplethorpe’s flowers are formally arranged just like his slender greenhouse flowers, those of Barbieri are natural, direct, real, opulent, and joyous, growing with striking expressive purity and simplicity.
Barbieri’s photographs combine the prehistoric approach, the aesthetic purpose of classical Greek beauty, and the newly discovered sense of freedom of the Renaissance. All this is expressed by means of an outstanding technical skill “in the studio”. For this, the studio, is the place for the art of photography in Barbieri’s mind; ultimately, it stands for artifice, theatrical representation, the reflection of reality in the eyes of the artist.
Barbieri always keeps this well in mind. Hence, the intentionally drawn association between flowers and human bodies should come as no surprise: for the artist the two represent the same unique and magnificent expression of nature.
Gian Paolo Barbieri was born in Milan in 1938 into a wealthy family of fabric wholesalers, learning from a young age the art of knowing the fabrics, knowledge that would become very useful to his profession as a fashion photographer. But during his teenage years it would be other places to captivate his attention: theatres, in the first place, which would feed and bring out his fantastic vein; discovering, not long after, the cinema that would reveal it self to be a life long passion. Following this passion he moves to Rome in 1962.
To manage, in the meantime, he develops and prints out the pictures taken of upcoming starlets and aspiring divas. But not for long. Life would take him elsewhere, to Paris, to work as photographer Tom Kublin’s assistant.
And it is this experience of two “excruciating” months that would launch him into the world of photography. In 1965 he joined Italian Vogue, and produced the cover of its first issue. His work for the Italian, French, American and German editions of Vogue led on to publicity work with the great fashion designers Valentino, Armani, Saint Laurent, Ferrè, Versace and Dolce &Gabbana.
In 1978 the German magazine Stern ranked him among the fourteen top fashion photographers.
In the 90s he made several trips to tropical paradises such as Tahiti, Madagascar, Seychelles and Polynesia, in which he describes places and distant realities with his impeccable taste meaning to combine the spontaneity of those people and those places with elegance and style.
He shoots in analogic mode and does not retouch his pictures. His photographs are on show at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Kunstforum in Vienna and the National Portrait Gallery of London.