A HANDSOME man strides along a pebbled beach in New England.
These vignettes, full of pulsing sexual tension, intrigue and half-glimpsed dramas, hint at stories going on behind the scenes. And yet they are fashion stills. All were featured in glossy magazines and were conceived by Fabrizio Gianni.
The 65-year-old, who has lived and worked in Rome, Milan, London, Paris, New York and Tokyo, now resides in Falkirk with his Scottish wife, a model turned advocate. When we meet in his home on a quiet street, Gianni has just returned from a shoot in his native Rome. The house is unassuming from the outside, but once inside you are greeted by something else entirely. There’s a delicate, coloured-glass Venetian chandelier, paintings hung from ribbons and bows, spindly, ornate Italian furniture and, everywhere, framed photographs, from sepia tints of his parents and grandparents to portraits of his wife as a fresh-faced young model in the early 1980s, as well as close-ups of the couple’s two startlingly beautiful children.
As we sip fiercely strong espresso from delicate china cups, Gianni leafs through his portfolio, revealing a life’s work of images of beautiful and sensual people, dressed by Giorgio Armani and Ralph Lauren, and posing against some of the most exotic backdrops the world has to offer.
Gianni, whose work has graced Elle, Vogue and GQ, to name a few, is no ordinary photographer. He began his career in the cinema, working alongside directors Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rossellini, then enjoyed a successful career in Hollywood, most notably as assistant director to Sergio Leone on The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. On the walls are stills of Gianni on film sets with Leone, Gary Oldman, Ben Kingsley, John Cassavetes and Gina Lollobrigida. This cinematic past has always informed his photography, and he has never lost his eye for scene-setting or his flair for the dramatic.
According to Gianni, not only did he discover a young Klaus Kinski for A Few Dollars More in 1965, he also originated Clint Eastwood’s poncho-wearing, cigar-chomping gunman hero. "I used to write scripts and created the character of El Puro for Sergio Leone when he was making A Fistful of Dollars in 1964," he says. "It was a collaboration with [director/actor] Fernando Lamas and it was a play on the Spanish word puro, which means ‘cigar’ and also ‘the pure one’. Sergio paid me 50 for El Puro - I never dreamed he would become one of the most recognisable film characters in the world."
One of four children born to a wealthy industrialist and an elegant lady who lunched, Gianni studied chemistry and physics in preparation for entering the family business. But a year spent working in their chemical firm put him off. He returned to Rome and enrolled in film school, after which he began working with Leone - still a relative unknown in the 1960s.
It was smoulderingly sexy actress and amateur photographer Lollobrigida who taught Gianni to use a camera and encouraged his interest in photography. And it was none other than Rossellini who advised him to turn professional. "He asked me how many photographers I could name, and I came up with a handful; then he asked how many cinema directors I knew, and 50 sprang to mind," he recalls. "He told me there were plenty of directors but hardly any exceptional photographers, and that I should not waste my talent."
He took the great director’s advice and touted his portfolio - stuffed with stills of the film stars he’d worked with - around the offices of Italy’s picture editors. They were impressed not only by the images but by his stellar contact book. "I spent 15 years working for the magazine Amica, where I really learned my trade, taking 300 pictures a week of everything from fashion to product shots. I couldn’t believe the money I was earning. In those days you could make 20,000 in half an hour for photographing deodorants."
He learned how to be a fashion photographer by re-shooting Helmut Newton covers for Vogue and Elle, replicating the poses and lighting when magazines needed pictures re-shot because, say, a designer had pulled out of an advertising deal. As Gianni moved up the ranks to work for Elle, Marie Claire, Vogue and GQ, the lessons he learned in film served him well, giving his photographs a unique quality. "I learned attention to detail from directors such as Enrico Bolognino, who would insist on using real champagne in scenes so we got the right pop, and who paid attention to how everything looked. When a couple went to bed he would re-shoot until he was satisfied the petticoat she had taken off landed in a pleasing way. It seems simple, but it’s not. It’s very difficult."
Gianni insists this same attention to detail went into the historical research that informed the wardrobe and props departments for the Italian-made westerns. "People call them spaghetti westerns, but in fact they are far more accurate portrayals of what the American west was like in the 1860s than anything made by John Ford, because we didn’t glamorise the period. I carried out a lot of research and discovered that rifles were rare and hardly ever used, and that the cavalry used a symbol of crossed rifles rather than the emblem of the crossed swords used by Ford."
Gianni’s eye for detail means he sources props himself, aiming to tell a nostalgic and romantic story woven around the lingerie, shoes and clothes being photographed. "I never lost sight of the fact that my job was to persuade women they should remember the clothes - that they are beautiful and sexy, but in fact it is the model who is beautiful and sexy, not the dress she is wearing. Designers don’t always think about the women they are designing for and it’s my job to put the clothes into settings, to show them being worn. When they are on the catwalk they are not really clothes, they are surrealistic works of art. I have to make them look real."
He accomplishes this by creating storylines reminiscent of a lost past that is partly drawn from photographs of his parents taken in the 1940s, and of his grandparents from the 1920s, with a bit of inspiration from Hollywood’s golden era. Thus his photographs are full of people who appear to have landed from another era, as if they have stepped out of a film. One 25-page fashion spread recounts the story of Hemingway’s The Moveable Feast, inspired by his nights in Paris, going on drunken pub crawls with F Scott Fitzgerald. Another pays tribute to 1920s silent movie actress turned fine art photographer Tina Modotti, who took part in the Mexican revolution and befriended Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.
David Eustace, one of Scotland’s leading young photographers, says of Gianni’s work, "His photographs are timeless classics. They capture a period but they are also believable. He is one of the old school - a fashion photographer who loves photography. Today’s fashion photography tends to be gimmicky, using digital cameras and manipulated with computer technology, but Fabrizio’s photographs tell a story in a filmic way."
Working a camera, Gianni admits, is child’s play. It is the art of photography that is difficult, requiring a photographer to express his artistic intuition with a "lyrical spirituality". He says, "An eight-year-old child can use a camera. It’s how you use the light that is important and I only use natural light because God is the best photographer. I very rarely allow the models to use make-up. Foundation shows up and it’s very artificial. If a girl has skin like a peach, why would I want to see it covered in make-up?"
His search for romance twinned with innocence and fresh-faced beauty drew Gianni to Scotland, where he has tried to capture the "eccentricity" of our culture. He has an Italian’s romanticised view of British women - careless of their toilette, happy to walk the dogs in faces bare of make-up, wearing old shoes, lumpy sweaters and a weathered jacket. "Scottish women are fantastic. They don’t care about clothes or appearance, and that makes them free. In Paris or Rome a woman would never go out in anything less than the most fashionable pair of shoes and that season’s dress. Here, my wife wears broken shoes and I have to force her to buy new clothes."
He shows me pictures taken during the tartan revival of the 1990s, shot on the beaches of St Andrews with models wearing 1920s-style tartan, tweed and caps. Another shoot features a Bonnie Prince Charlie storyline and took place in Aberfeldy using Vivienne Westwood clothes. "I wanted to capture the tomboy look. They are so natural with no make-up. Only British girls look like that. There are no other girls in the world like them. They are very eccentric. At my son’s end-of-term ball at Dollar Academy, at the end of the night the young girls were walking about in bare feet, carrying their shoes. Italian women would never do that - they are too sissy."
Given his fascination with Scottish women, it is no surprise that his wife, Gail Inglis, hails from Falkirk. He met the former model in Milan 20 years ago. Despite having lived all over the world, Gianni insists he feels perfectly at home in this less than romantic corner of Scotland. "I am a Scot psychologically. They have family values that have been lost in countries like Italy and France," he says. But he admits to having mixed feelings about Scotland itself. "It is still a barbarian country, but somehow I like it. I find the barbarousness very attractive. When the French ambassador was sent to Scotland to arrange the engagement of Mary Queen of Scots to the Dauphin when they were three and four years old, he wrote back to the king of France describing Scotland as un pays de sauvages, which means a country of wild men. I would amend that to un pays adorable de sauvages.
"Although it is a modern country and has a well-educated population, it is still very wild. I find the Scots lacking in taste of food and clothing. They are very basic, but the fantastic part is they are very happy and that means man can do without these superficial idiocies. Some people call it barbarism but it’s also a kind of freedom. I adore the eccentricity. The only other place in Europe you find the same relaxed and funny mentality is Naples.
"I feel at home here; not once have I felt like a foreigner. Everywhere else in the world I feel like an Italian, but here they make you feel like you belong. I’m not an Italian here, I’m a person."
Now more or less retired, Gianni picks and chooses his assignments, insisting he doesn’t miss the world of high fashion. "Models today are asking ridiculous money and make in two hours what some people work a lifetime for," he says. "It is obscene, and fashion is now just about branding in order to sell perfume. I’m happy to have settled down in Scotland. I’ve been on too many aeroplanes."