by Paolo Mattei
Walking around the streets of Rome with Rino Barillari is a little unsettling. The “King of Paparazzi”, the famous photographer of the capital’s “dolce vita”, was a boy of fourteen when he came to Rome from Calabria in the late 1950s. He started walking around taking pictures fifty years ago, and has never stopped in his relentless hunt for VIP prey. He has collected a number of trophies, immortalizing international stars like Marlon Brando, Audrey Hepburn, Jean Paul Belmondo, Kirk Douglas, Shirley McLaine, Richard Burton, Liz Taylor, Peter O’Toole, and Frank Sinatra. Listing all of them would simply be impossible. Yet he looks more like a lazy stroller than a hunter, as he slowly walks around the Baroque center of the city, from Via Condotti to Via Frattina and Via Borgognona.
He is not lazy at all, in fact. He’s “walking turtles on a leash”, to use Baudelaire’s famous description of decadent flâneurs. He is always working, scanning the people walking by faster than the most powerful technologies on the market. He is on the lookout for his prey, hunting for famous people.
What is unsettling is people’s reaction: they turn around to look at him, and elbow each other as they sit around tables. Every block or two, one of his “victims” stops to says hello, as if seeing an old friend. Suddenly, you can’t really tell who the hunter and who the prey are, like in poet Giorgio Caproni’s verses: “Così si forma un cerchio/ dove l’inseguito insegue il suo inseguitore” (“Thus a circle forms / in which the one chased chases the one chasing”).
Barillari stops at a crossroads. “This is a good spot. And today is Wednesday, a great day. Only Fridays are better…”
This has been his life for half a century. He would have never imagined he would someday become part of the history of Italian culture that he tells through his photos. He is an “accidental photographer”: in the early 1960s, when he was still a kid and needed to make ends meet, he started helping out the men destined to become his teachers: Tazio Secchiaroli, Gilberto Petrucci, Giacomo Alexis, Paolo Pavia, Elio Sorci, Marcello Geppetti… He went with them to hide and wait between Piazza di Spagna and Piazza del Popolo, and most importantly along Via Veneto.
Before coming to Rome, he had dreamt of that world only through movies and newsreels. “I knew all the faces in showbiz because I helped my uncle, who owned a cinema in my hometown Limbadi, in the province of Vibo Valentia. I decided to go see that world for real, and came to Rome with two friends. They gave up and went back home, but I stayed. It was hard: I had to find a way to eat and a place to sleep. I made many sacrifices because I didn’t know anyone who could help me find work, and I had to be careful to stay out of trouble or the police would send me back home. In a way, I was like a clandestine immigrant.”
How did you learn to take photographs?
I never went to school, but had the great fortune of working with the best newspaper photographers in the world, and they helped me understand photography. I barely knew what film was… In the beginning, to make ends meet, I worked as an errand boy. Little by little, almost without them noticing, I learned the trade.
How could they not notice?
I learned without bothering them. I pretended to make a mistake and from the way they corrected me I understood everything and picked up the tricks of the trade. On my behalf, I was very useful to them in their paparazzi performances…
What do you mean?
Well, sometimes they used me to provoke a scene. They found someone famous and made me go out front like a pint-size reconnaissance officer. I caused some confusion, and then they came out to capture their VIP, firing away with their cameras…
Barillari has nobody doing reconnaissance for him. He is a loner, and works on his own. “I never work with other photographers: you just risk stepping on each other’s toes.”
You must be proud to have become the “King of Paparazzi”…
Of course. Fellini’s “Dolce vita” made the term famous, and now it is the third most-known Italian word in the world. How could I not be proud? The problem is that paparazzi are an endangered species.
Their credibility is mined by scandals. Anyone today can take a stab at the job: take a cell phone and go out, then come up with a million post-produced, fake photographs. Anonymous services are rampant, and that makes life harder for those like me, who attach their face and name to their photos.
This afternoon conversation between one popular spot and the next, with words like “credibility” and “professionalism” coming up, is unexpected. Unsettlement gives way to perplexity, thinking about the ephemeral, colorful scene Barillari has worked with every day for fifty years: distant from the so-called “real world”, the “outside”, and futile, like the smothering new-baroque parody Sorrentino showcased in his “The Great Beauty”. But then you remember you are talking to a real newspaper photographer, who was also behind difficult reports from crime-ridden squares during Italy’s political turmoil in the 1970s.
Before you can express your doubts, Barillari explains, “Trend and showbiz photography is a very serious affair. Italy has only recently come to realize it, but in the United States, Germany and France these photographs are priceless. They are the fundamental element in a productive chain that involves a lot of people.”
Touché. Suddenly, you are the snooty assistant in “The Devil Wears Prada”, and Meryl Streep – playing the super-powerful editor in chief of a famous fashion magazine – is schooling you: the fleeting “cerulean” you are wearing “represents millions of dollars and countless jobs.”
Better to move on to the next question, and do your best to keep up with him.
Have you ever thought about changing genre?
Do you mean fine photography? No, I am not cultured enough. You must have an extensive education for that kind of photographs. I am a newspaper photographer, a paparazzo: that is my job, and I want to do it well. I hunt for news and people. But I am grateful for photographers who express themselves that way: they improve the whole category’s reputation.
Don’t tell me you have never tried photographing a landscape…
Of course I have. I have a whole archive full of photos I took of objects, animals, furniture, views. But I don’t think they are important: they were exercises I did because if you are trained to photograph everything, you can face anything at anytime. If you are used to shooting nothing by handshakes, you’ll have nowhere to turn when you are out of your element.
How are you able to keep a distance from the people you photograph? You are a friend to so many of them, yet they are all your preys…
My strategy is not to become a “real” friend of theirs, but to keep a certain distance, like a good “acquaintance”. This way, they respect my work. If I ever became a real friend to a VIP, I’d be over. I would have to change job.
But you must have become friends with some of them…
Well, paparazzi have a heart too. But I would call it “respect” more than “friendship”.
What do you mean?
I’m talking about the respect people have for you when you are on opposing sides but prove your intelligence. If someone asks kindly not to be disturbed and you listen to them, they will grant you three opportunities in the next year… Then of course, if I saw the Pope in the street I would just take his picture, no matter what: I might never see him again.
By the way, do you work inside Vatican City?
No, they banished me a long time ago. I am not a good fit for them because they are afraid I will break one of their embargos…
How has the “dolce vita” changed? What is it like in the 21st century?
In the 1960s, there were relatively few famous people: actors, actresses, princesses, kings in exile, pop music stars… There were only a few, but they were the best of the best. There were also some beautiful doubles, like Scilla Gabel for Sophia Loren or Cristina Gaioni for Brigitte Bardot. Today, television churns out celebrities day in and day out. They are all famous because we all watch TV and have the Internet. In the past, all you had were movies at the cinema.
Have VIPs changed?
They are more tired and bored. They are sick of people stopping them for a selfie. They often change route to have some peace, so you have to track them down. Some self-promote by publishing their own photos on their own websites, so they are their own paparazzi: an actor can reveal his new relationship, a diva can announce her pregnancy…
What is the typical day in the life of the “King of Paparazzi”?
I usually get up at 11 and go to bed at 3 or 4 AM, even when nothing is happening and there is nothing planned. Always being ready is the trick: if there isn’t a lot of work, I go out and look for it. Like right now. If you only work when you “have to”, based on newspapers’ requests, you dry up and become dumb.
Do you still go to Via Veneto?
Always. At 2 AM I go to Harry’s Bar, where everyone is waiting for me: I meet people, I get tips…
What are your memories of Fellini?
He made you feel important. He let you talk, he wanted to know everything about your life and your work, even the oddest details. I know it was all in his professional and artistic interest, but it was nice. I thought he was nuts when I was young, but then I realized he was a genius of infinite talent.
Who were the famous people you immortalized under the “First Republic”?
I got almost everyone: Cossiga, Leone, Saragat, Andreotti, who always gave me presents. Even in politics, you could always tell who had any talent: the ones who were rude to you were usually men with no story to tell.
What do you mean?
I mean that great men always have great stories to tell…
How do you react when someone is rude to you?
Next time I meet them, I ignore them. It’s the worst humiliation for them.
Barillari’s phone rings. The ringtone sounds like a croaking voice over a two-way radio, calling for an ambulance.
What was that?
It’s the recording from one of the many times I got beat up. For my birthday, one year they gave me a recording of the emergency calls made for my numerous “accidents”.
Right. There is a record the “King” is proud to trumpet on his website: “Seventy-six smashed cameras, eleven broken ribs, and 164 ER visits”. It’s a brilliant communication strategy: paparazzi pay the price directly.
You’ve had your share of bruises…
Well, yes. I was slapped by Peter O’Toole and Buzz Aldrin, the astronaut. I got in a fight with Aznavour… I’ve been stabbed, I’ve had about forty flashes smashed, and I’ve been clubbed by the police when I was with rioters.
Aren’t you tired of all this? Aren’t you tired of hunting?
The afternoon stroll – or hunt – is almost over. Barillari has another work commitment: he is expected at a club opening. He will go back to his real job after dinner, on the tracks of Rome’s nighttime.
We say goodbye in front of a church.
By the way, are you religious?
Only when I’m sick. When I feel good I forget.
If we count his 164 hospital admissions, perhaps Barillari’s is the story of a pious man. Who would have thought!