Paolo di Paolo, Italy’s most famous unknown photographer | Culture


As his name appears twice, 97-year-old Italian photographer Paolo di Paolo also believes he had two extra lives. When she was a few months old, she was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. The family doctor’s advice was to regularly bathe the baby in Negroamaro, a southern Italian wine renowned for its restorative qualities. Nobody knows how, but di Paolo was cured and today he is almost a century old.

The second new life came when he decided to disappear from photography after only 16 years, during which he became a legend in the field. Settling into his chair, Paolo di Paolo jokes that he no longer bathes in Negroamaro. However, he drinks about a liter of red wine a day.

His daughter, Silvia, accidentally dug up all her work one day while looking for old skis in the attic. Now the holder of a collection of approximately 254,000 unpublished negatives between 1964 and 1968, she accompanied him during the interview with EL PAÍS.

The photographer Paolo di Paolo, at home. Stefan Giftthaler

Di Paolo is revered by the likes of designer Alessandro Michele and photographer Bruce Weber, who recently created a documentary titled The treasure of his youth: the photographs of Paolo Di Paolo. He lives with his wife in the central district of San Lorenzo in Rome. He decides one day in 1968 to give up his career as a photographer, locking up this part of his identity in the pile of old boxes that his daughter will find years later. It wasn’t just any day but the day when Il Mondo, the weekly for which he worked and which defended the work of photographers, has closed its doors. Feeling the advent of a more cynical world of paparazzi and stardom, di Paolo decided never to talk again about the world he had photographed – the movie stars, filmmakers, writers and journalists who adored him and occupied a world he now felt was lost.

“Who was going to publish my photos? he asks, saying the rise of television meant the end of long and elaborate photojournalism. “The coup de grace,” he says, came one day when he met a newspaper editor, who told him, “Bring me anything spicy.” “I left his office sad,” di Paolo recalled, saying he felt the physical and symbolic doors closing behind him. His work was not in “the world of scandal”, salaciousness and intrusion. Had he decided to join this new demand for photographers, he too would have declined, he says, adding that as such, “today we surely wouldn’t be here.”

Panoramic view of Paolo di Paolo's office.
Panoramic view of Paolo di Paolo’s office.Stefan Giftthaler

Di Paolo’s work is known for its oscillation between his delicate gaze and the powerful gravity of the people he depicted, among them Oriana Fallaci, René Clair, Giorgio De Chirico, Ezra Pound, Marcello Mastroianni and Anna Magnani. He also documented the almost hidden rituals of ancient Roman nobility, such as Princess Pallavicini’s going out ball, where he was the only photographer allowed to enter, as well as political moments such as the funeral of Palmiro Togliatti, general secretary. of the Italian Communist Party.

Italy was already experiencing the first detonations of the economic boom that modernized the nation in the sixties and the social tensions that accompanied it from north to south. Di Paolo deeply felt the fractures and sought to represent them. He went to photograph the inauguration of the Autopista del Sol, the great “highway of the sun”, a daring infrastructure supposed to unite the country and move it forward; di Paolo climbed to the top of a hill and, from behind, captured a poor family living in a shack watching the first car speed through olive trees and fields, leaving them behind.

As a student, di Paolo wanted to be a professor of philosophy, until, on the eve of his university graduation, he stumbled across a Leica III C in a store window. It is perhaps this intellectual focus that explains his concern for ethics at least as much as aesthetics in his work. The dawn of celebrity culture, he says, made him and his colleagues “ashamed to take to the streets with the camera around their necks.”

Paolo di Paolo's hands hold his camera.
Paolo di Paolo’s hands hold his camera.Stefan Giftthaler

“The paparazzi thing was a phenomenon fueled by Fellini,” says di Paolo, adding that the glamorous word of The good life Never existed. “He invented a whole world in his films, far from being… a Rome he didn’t know.”

Di Paolo started his photography career with four or five friends who wanted to express themselves artistically in one way or another, he recalls. “We come from different experiences. We had a huge will, because we came from the end of the war. We weren’t unhappy because we didn’t know what happiness was. But suddenly we discovered the ability to dream and make dreams come true,” he explains.

Books and photographs in a corner of Paolo di Paolo's office.
Books and photographs in a corner of Paolo di Paolo’s office.Stefan Giftthaler

They wanted the truth, an ethic that gave di Paolo extraordinary access to people like Pier Paolo Pasoloni, who was a young writer and poet when di Paolo accompanied him one summer for a photo essay titled The long sand road. The two spent half the trip in silence, driving in the photographer’s MG convertible. The friendship led the filmmaker to open his doors to di Paolo to shoot films on future projects, such as The Gospel According to Saint Matthew.

Silvia, her daughter, remembers that “we have never seen stars” like that in family life. Even she didn’t know exactly what her father had done until she found the stash of prints and negatives in the attic.


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