Paolo Roversi is the most mannerist of artists. The allure of his images lies in their carefully calibrated and sedate departures from naturalism. With formal means that have their roots in pictorialism – soft focus, double exposures, and diffuse lighting with colored gels – they can sail quietly and discreetly into the realm of the surreal. The 27 images in his recent show Doubts, at Pace/MacGill, represent more or less the second half of a career spanning 40 years. The fashion work for which he is best known predominated, with examples from collaborations with Rei Kawakubo, Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, and others. The earliest images, two nudes of model Naomi Campbell and the lush carbon print Guinevere, Paris, are from 1996, while the most recent is from just last year. Among his contemporaries, Roversi is among the most successful at blurring the boundaries between high fashion and fine art photography, making images that transcend their original editorial or advertising intent as successfully as anyone since Penn or Avedon.
Roversi’s trademark vintage patina evokes the period style of late 19th-century albumen or bitumen photographs. Yet there is an ethereal softness in the diffuse light and shadow in which the ghostly figures are suspended that renders them immune from the exigencies of gravity and time. Going against the “nowness” of fashion, the garments, which are the ostensible subject of work that was produced on assignment, are distilled to pure idea. Such is the immersive pull of his dream-spaces that when he opts for a greater degree of verisimilitude, as he does in such black-and-white portraits as Billy, 1998, and Saskia, Paris, 2012, the gaze of the subjects can be jolting. While Roversi is justly celebrated as a fashion photographer, these portraits stand apart, having more in common visually with Penn’s small tradesmen or Sander’s Citizens than with anything associated with the genre over the last 20 or so years. They suggest that the numinous, hazy atmospherics of his best-known work has an earthbound, psychologically rooted counterpart.