Paolo di Paolo

Interview & Photography by: Mart Engelen

Paolo Di Paolo, Rome 2017
 

Paolo Di Paolo, Rome 2017


 
 

A conversation with the iconic Italian photographer Paolo Di Paolo of the 1950’s and 1960’s about photography, Pier Paolo Pasolini and why he stopped photography from one day to the next.

 
 

Mart Engelen: What fascinated you about photography and prompted you to buy your first camera?
Paolo Di Paolo: I always loved images when I was a young guy. I was very good at drawing, including caricatures. At a certain point I felt the need to capture the image better. And everyday on my way to work (I was editor in chief of a magazine), I passed this store with a beautiful Leica camera in the window. So one day I decided to buy it and quit my job because I wanted to take pictures.
ME: Do you think you had a different approach to photography because you studied history and philosophy?
PDP: I only realised that after a long time. When you study philosophy, you try to understand the mentality of the human being in society. With photography, I wanted to show something beyond the image. And after a long time I realised that this was possible. For example, when I did pictures of the painter Mario Mafai, I knew I could take it further than just photographing the artist in his studio. I was able to show the loneliness and frustration of the artist. With Gina Lollobrigida, it was the opposite (laughs); behind that beautiful face was only emptiness.
ME: What are the characteristics of a good photograph for you? PDP: (Laughs.) My editor, Mario Pannunzio, at the cult magazine Il Mondo explained what a good picture should contain. At the time, all the intellectuals and philosophers were writing for Il Mondo and Pannunzio completely changed the approach to photography. The photos were not linked to the text but were independent. For Pannunzio, a photograph should contain beauty but not in a traditional way. The beauty should come from telling a story and from the content of the image with an aesthetic concept that comes from unity, content and form. If these elements are well combined and balanced, the photography becomes important. In that way the images don’t need any extra text and can exist independently. And I love that approach. The image must be the protagonist with no interference.
ME: How was it to be a photographer then, just after World War II? PDP: At the time, photography only had a documentary role. But in 1937-38, Leo Longanesi founded the magazine Omnibus and published photographs in a pioneering spirit. It was not well understood by photographers of the time and those who understood were not professional photographers but lawyers, philosophers, doctors. But they took pictures in this new way.
ME: How do you look at photography today?
PDP: Technically photography has progressed enormously but I see nothing that excites me. But in #59 Magazine I see a story together with beauty, content, good photography and an amazing print quality. ME: (Laughs) Grazie mille!
PDP: I really think that a lot of photography nowadays doesn’t tell a story or have emotion. That is actually also the reason why I stopped. ME: Please tell me more about the summer project you did with Pasolini for the magazine Il Successo? La lunga strada di sabbia (The long road of sand) project when Paolo di Paolo accompanied Pier Paolo Pasolini as photographer on a trip all along the Italian coastline in the summer of 1959.)
PDP: Very hard and difficult! It was very difficult because we were complete opposites. Pasolini was very quiet, rarely talked and was very absent. He was also very suspicious of me because I was a photographer and he was, let’s say not snobbish, but very intellectual. One day, we were heading for a beach called Cinquale near Forte dei Marmi and Viareggio. At the time, it was very wild and unspoilt and I told Pasolini that it was a spot for many intellectuals like the poet Rilke and I cited some lines of a Rilke poem. Pasolini was surprised and from that moment he changed his attitude towards me because before that he thought that I was just another photographer. He asked me how I knew Rilke and I told him I studied history and philosophy. (Laughs.) But even after that, travelling with Pasolini was not very easy because I was supposed to take pictures for the project but Pasolini was only observing and was pretty much in his own world. I thought Pasolini would talk to people but he didn’t talk to anyone. I was very worried and called the editor saying that Pasolini was not connecting with anyone. The editor told me not to worry because he had received the first chapter from Pasolini and he said it was beautiful. He told me to continue with my photographs and everything would be fine. ME: So tell me more about your famous picture of Pasolini, where he is sitting somewhere on the outskirts of Rome and a young boy is walking out of the picture?
PDP: This picture says everything about my relationship with Pasolini. Pasolini didn’t like to be photographed. Although, out of respect he trusted me. So one day he said, “Why don’t you come to my house and we can go around and you can take pictures as much as you want.” So Pasolini took me to this working-class neighbourhood called Testaccio, in the suburbs of Rome. It was quite a rough area and all the boys knew him. Pasolini tried to hide this aspect from me. The boys were thinking, “Who’s this person with the camera”. They were jealous. So I had to take pictures in a very casual and discreet way. When we were walking up the hill, Pasolini was more relaxed because he knew I would be discreet and not force him to do things he wouldn’t like. So I became kind of invisible to him and he became very natural. As if he was alone. Actually, I was very happy that day because I felt almost like a friend.
ME: And what was that boy doing in the picture?
PDP: The scenario was incredible. The sky was very dark with grey clouds. All the rocks and a feeling of abandonment in this rather sad environment. So Pasolini sat down and I saw this young guy, who was spying on us, coming from the opposite side. The guy was looking curiously at what we were doing. And then went away. At that moment I realised I was taking an incredible picture. The photo of my life. I had just a couple of seconds to shoot it. I was convinced they knew each other. The editor finally decided not to publish the picture because it was too perfect, beautiful and mise en scene. But it was real. ME: Can you explain to me why you stopped from one day to the next and put all your negatives and photographs in boxes that Silvia, your daughter, discovered after all these years without even knowing that you were a photographer in an earlier life?
PDP: Well, at that time everything was changing. Il Mondo closed in 1966 as did Tempo. The paparazzi era took over. It was all about scoops and gossip after that. So the whole meaning of photography was changing and I decided to stop at the right time. If you don’t have an audience anymore, why would you continue? My major tool to express myself was gone. People wouldn’t understand my language anymore. So I decided to stop. I quit photography for the love of photography.
ME: So how was it for you, Silvia, to find these negatives and photographs one day?
Silvia di Paolo: It was a big surprise for me because all my life I had known my father as a historian. And when I found the negatives, etc., he said it was something from the past and didn’t want to talk about it. They had been in the basement of the house for fifty years! And most of them are unpublished because apart from the reportages he did for magazines, most of his work he did for his own pleasure.
ME: Thank you for this conversation.
PDP and SDP: Thank you.
 
—Copyright 2018 Mart Engelen