'I believe it’s fundamental to establish a connection and a transfer of energy before every shot,' he says
Photographer Riccardo Ghilardi on Capturing the story of a famous person’s soul in a three-minute window
“In 2004, the Sliding Doors of my life happened,” says Riccardo Ghilardi, referring to the 1998 film starring Gwyneth Paltrow.
Ghilardi is a world-famous celebrity photographer for Contour by Getty Images, whose latest exhibition, Three Minutes, was presented during the 13th Rome Film Fest, which drew to a close on Sunday. He has immortalised the who’s who of world cinema, and his images have rightly been called “photographic paintings”.
It turns out that Ghilardi’s life is, in itself, film-worthy. From a childhood aficionado of photography, he became a lifelong surfer and world traveller, before joining Rome’s firefighting department (like his father and grandfathers had done before him), where he served for 22 years until 2013. “I wanted to help people, perform work that was socially useful and do a dynamic job,” he explains. “Those were the most beautiful years of my life.”
Discovering a new love
His Sliding Doors moment came in the form of “an ugly accident in Indonesia, during one of my travels seeking waves”, when the photographer was literally stopped in his tracks. He was bed-bound for an entire year, with months of rehabilitation ahead of him. “These were very difficult months, in which fate tried me and my future became uncertain. For the first time, without being able to work and without my waves, I felt stuck,” he explains.
It was at this time that Ghilardi reconnected with photography or, more precisely, found a new passion within an already beloved art. While in the past he had concentrated on surfing shots and on capturing his fellow firefighters – his first photographic exhibition was titled Thoughts in Silence and featured the men of the 7A Comando in Rome, the oldest fire house in Italy – he started finding stillness fascinating. “I discovered a new love, the love of portraits,” he admits.
During his rehabilitation, he “alternated physical therapy and light tests”. With the help of some good friends, the shutterbug started to frequent movie sets, where he was able to study those that he calls “the masters of photography, at work”.
Getting the best out of his subjects
The title of his current exhibition, Three Minutes, refers to the amount of time portrait photographers typically have with a celebrity in the midst of a festival such as Cannes, Berlin or Venice, and at award ceremonies, including the Oscars and Golden Globes – which have all been covered by Ghilardi. “Those were my moments, when I tried to catch their essence,” he says. “I had the honour of having my own slots in the packed festival schedule, and I took these portraits of the people behind the celebrities.”
It is exactly this – the vulnerable humanity of the person behind the star – that he captures best, in actors such as Willem Dafoe and Joaquin Phoenix, filmmakers David Lynch and Julian Schnabel, and some haunting photographs of the late actress Carrie Fisher. Of Helen Mirren, he says: “She is definitely someone with whom I love to work,” going as far as to call her his favourite subject. When asked if there is one person he’d rather never photograph again, Ghilardi diplomatically responds: “Fortunately, no one.”
So what is his secret to bringing out the best in everyone he meets? The Italian photographer says that it comes down to respect. “It’s important to me to make sure that the person on the other side of the camera from me is happy to be there. Sometimes, you can gain more respect as a photographer when you give up, when you relinquish a shot.”
While it’s impossible to bottle the formula for his intimate photographs, Ghilardi offers insight into his work alchemy. “I believe it’s fundamental to establish a connection and a transfer of energy before every shot.” He does this by talking, sharing and getting to know his subject, however brief their encounter may be.
'A story of their soul'
This sense of empathy for his subjects sits at the core of his creations. Ghilardi doesn’t believe gender has anything to do with it. “I believe every shot is different, regardless of whether the subject is a man or a woman,” he admits. But there is definitely a difference between working with stars and fashion models. “Often people think that an actor or an actress, celebrities in general, are naturally comfortable in front of the camera,” he explains. “But we shouldn’t forget that their work, their art, is made up of both interpretation and movement, and those imperceptible expressions that made us fall in love with the characters they inhabited.”
Still photography, on the other hand, “constricts their creativity in some way, depriving them of movement, and not everyone likes to interpret a single moment, revealing themselves”.
What the photographer loves most about his work are “the meetings; the exchange of energy during a shooting session for portraits” – that public intimacy that is necessary for him to capture “with maximum respect, a story of their soul”.
Ghilardi’s personal philosophy in life (the story of his soul, so to speak), hinges on a pragmatic view of the world that makes him exceptionally down to earth among celebrities, and comes from surfing. “When you are in the sea, you take off your ‘social costume’ completely, barriers fall and people all become the same when faced by nature – that’s why I say a wave is democratic.”
His favourite places around the world, when he’s not working, include Australia – “the perfect compromise between uncontaminated nature and a civil society able to respect it”; the continent of Africa (“I always leave my heart there”), New York City, which “possesses a unique energy”, and his native city. “Rome is Rome,” he says.