A master of studio portraiture, Sam Levin began his career in the 1930s photographing the stars of French cinema like Simone Signoret and Jean Gabin. He became very well-known for his highly posed portraits characterized by dramatic lighting. With Brigitte Bardot as his model however, Levin found a new energy and vitality in his portraiture. Inspired by this young a vivacious star, Levin broke with many of the traditions and conventions of post-war cinema portraiture to create a series of images that encapsulate the spirit of the 1960s woman.
Sam Levin’s photographs are amongst the most iconic ever taken of Bardot. He contributed perhaps more than any other photographer to Bardot’s early imaging as a ‘sex kitten’ with his sensual, riske images.
During this time, France was looking for a new symbol of the nation and through Levin’s images, found this in Bardot. Portraying her in vibrant colours, with tousled hair and bare feet, Levin broke away from traditional studio shoot conventions to create a new fashion aesthetic and sexual vocabulary. Thus conjuring a refreshing image of childish naiveté, coupled with an almost animalistic sexuality, which made Bardot a tabula rasa on which France was able to stamp their objectives of modernity. Levin’s photos of Bardot were one of the main forces that propelled Bardot’s image and thus France to compete with Hollywood sirens for publicity. In 1960 it was rumoured that Levin’s photo of Bardot from behind in a white corset sold more postcards than that of the Eiffel Tower.
Tazio Secchiaroli was known as the ‘leader of the pack’ of the original paparazzi. Believing a picture is a stolen moment from life; he wanted his photos full of action and in defense of his aggressive photographic style, he has said, “the day photographers will no longer be after you, you’ll be after them!”
Early on, Secchiaroli took pictures of tourists and American soldiers on the streets of Rome. He quickly realized however that it was more profitable to sell photographs of celebrities to the newspapers. Knowing journalists were constantly searching for a fresh angle, Secchiaroli decided to stage confrontations with his celebrity prey – a chase scene, an overturned table, a starlet on the run. He found that magazine editors, bored with staged portraits, would pay dearly for what he called surprise pictures of stars, especially if they were caught in compromising positions. The ‘stolen’ images would earn the ‘victim’ a lot of press coverage, thus satiating all parties involved. Secchiaroli and his fellow photographers would chase celebrities around Rome on their Vespas and later on Fiat 600s, both symbols of the economic miracle in Italy.
After Fellini based his character ‘Paparazzo’ on Secchiaroli in La Dolce Vita, his reputation soared. Various filmmakers and stars, including Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren, used him as their personal photographer, and in this capacity Secchiaroli turned into a companion and confidante. Ironically, a film that reflected Paparazzo’s– and thus Secchiaroli’s– ‘other’ or ‘outsider’ status in the celebrity world was enough to grant him unrestrained access inside it.
In 1963 Secchiaroli was selected as an on-set photographer for Jean Luc Godard’s, Le Mepris, a cinematic gem and Bardot’s first foray into art-house cinema. The photographs Secchiaroli took with free reign on set offer glimpses into a world where film-goers are not usually allowed. Despite the full access that he was given, Secchiaroli held true to his prior paparazzi aesthetics and preferred to have his photographs appear as stolen moments, or voyeuristic glimpses into the star’s life. Objects such as a statue, a lamp, or other figures often obstruct the view of Bardot; one shot is taken through bars; all giving the sense of the illicit stolen image.
Not only can we see the talent of Secchiaroli as a photographer in the shots but we are also afforded a glimpse into Jean Luc Godard’s creative process via the body of Bardot. Through Secchiaroli’s unconventional voyeurism, we gain a one of a kind perspective on the making of a masterpiece.
In the post-war period, Italy was rapidly transforming. The hardships of reconstruction in the 40s and 50s soon gave way to the great economic boom of the 60s. A large factor in this boom was the amount of American financial interest in Italy, a product of the occupation at the end of the war. The greatest symbol of this was the Cinecittà studios, which became second only to Hollywood as the biggest centre of film production in the world.
Countless international productions were filmed at Cinecittà where labour was cheaper than in America. Rome became a hub for the world’s most glamorous stars to congregate and mostly they were to be found on the Via Veneto. Photographers like Marcello Geppetti and Tazio Secchiaroli would flock to the cafes and nightclubs along the strip in order to photograph them, armed with their Rollei twin reflex cameras and braun flash attachments. It was these photographers, and most particularly Secchiaroli who became the basis for Fellini’s character ‘Paparazzo’ in La Dolce Vita.
Brigitte Bardot spent a great deal of time in Italy shooting Jean Luc- Godard’s Le Mepris (filmed at Cinecittà and in Capri) and Louis Malle’s La Vie Privee (filmed in France and in Spoletto). When she arrived at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport, she was greeted by a throng of reporters and photographers, Patrick Morin among them. Morin’s shots of Bardot leaving the plane perfectly capture the essence of an era. They belong to a visual trope that symbolized the height of modern luxury and the glamorous ‘jet-set’ lifestyle.
La Vie Privee follows the life of fictional diva and sex icon ‘Jill’ who due to the pressures of fame and a troubled personal life meets a tragic end. Often overlapping with biographical details of Bardot’s own life, the film blurs the lines between reality and fiction. Referring to Bardot’s relationship with the persistent press, the film paints the picture of an ever-growing army of paparazzi willing to cross any line for a shot.
Marcello Geppetti’s images of Bardot in Spoleto, are paparazzi images of a star playing the role of a star being hounded by paparazzi. There is nonetheless an innocence and sense of collusion in the images.