The photographer Paolo Di Paolo, who has died aged 98, documented the renaissance of Italy following the dark days of the second world war, capturing that country’s 1950s and 60s glamor. His star shone brightly for 15 years before he turned his back on photography, but in that time he recorded the luminosity of cultural figures such as Pier Paolo Pasolini, Gina Lollobrigida and Tennessee Williams, as well as the optimism and dignity of ordinary people.
His pictures captured the shift from a more innocent, rural life, in a style that mirrored the neorealism movement in Italian films, as embodied in the shot of three boys on a bucolic hill looking towards the sprawl of Rome. His keen eye recorded the societal tension between the haves and have-nots, but his humanist approach highlighted the elegance of every person, regardless of circumstance. He said: “You might not know the subject but you understand the situation. In every image there is a story to tell … that is my law.”
Di Paolo started out as a self-taught amateur, taking photographs for pleasure with a considered approach. “Each shot had to be a good one. If the situation was not as I had in my mind, I wouldn’t take the picture.”
In 1954, he took his photos to Mario Pannunzio, the editor of the influential weekly current affairs magazine Il Mondo. Pannunzio recognized Di Paolo’s talent, and the photographer found his spiritual home.
He earned money working for other publications, notably Tempo, who sent him on assignments abroad. However, it was on home soil, on the self-titled 1959 assignment for Successo magazine, The Long Road of Sand, that Di Paolo produced some of his finest reportage. He embarked on a road trip along the coast in his Arnolt MG, with the author and poet Pasolini in the passenger seat, documenting Italians on vacation at the dawn of a new era. Di Paolo said: “I was looking for an Italy that looked to the future.”
His intelligence, empathy and discretion garnered trust and allowed him to take many candid portraits of major cultural figures including Sophia Loren applying makeup, Marcello Mastroianni sipping coffee and Kim Novak ironing. He formed a strong bond with the enigmatic actor Anna Magnani and his portraits of her with her son capture, and are captured by, intimacy.
Paolo was born into a poor family in the village of Larino, in Molise. His father, Michele Di Paolo, ran a small shop that sold tobacco and salt and his mother, Michelina (nee Lallo), was a smallholder and a skilled painter and embroiderer. He had five step-siblings from his father’s two previous marriages.
He attended the village school then moved to Rome to complete the final year of his studies at Liceo Classico Augusto, before returning to Larino. During the war he served in the Granatieri (Grenadiers) near his home, but did not see any action. Afterwards he began writing for local newspapers, but he wanted more from life.
In 1949, at the age of 24, he left home to study history and philosophy at La Sapienza University of Rome. He intended to return to Larino to become a teacher there, but fell in with a group of young artists who were hotbed of ideas and creativity, and realized he needed to explore a different path.
He had been making ends meet working at a tourism magazine, and was on his way to their offices in 1953 when he saw and fell in love with a Leica IIIc camera in the window of a nearby optician. He had found the means by which to express himself.
He resigned from his job and used his severance money to buy the camera. Abandoning his studies shortly before graduation, he threw himself into the new humanist movement in photography. “The strength and enthusiasm that motivated us young people was overwhelming: our happiness was intoxicating.”
However in 1966, with the rise of television and the dawn of a salacious celebrity culture, Il Mondo closed. Di Paolo was devastated. He wrote a telegram to Pannunzio: “Today … the ambition to be a photographer has died.”
The following year Di Paolo photographed the Valentino haute couture show, but he was becoming increasingly disillusioned. In 1968 he went to see a photo editor who wanted him to exploit his society’s contacts, to get “some spice”.
Di Paolo’s strong ethical sense clashed with this new aggressive style and he refused to be associated with the paparazzi. At the peak of his powers, he hung up his camera and shut away his 250,000 negatives, prints and slides.
He moved to the countryside outside Rome, taking a job as an art director for the carabinieri (Italy’s regional police). Over the next 40 years he produced books, which included his photos of the cadets’ lives, and calendars, for the force. In 1973, he married Elena Marcelli, his former assistant, and they had two children, Michele and Silvia. He lived a quiet life and indulged his passions for winemaking, dogs and vintage cars.
In 1997, Silvia was hunting for a pair of skis in the cellar of her parents’ home when she was shocked to discover his photographic archive. She had no idea her father had been a photographer. She asked him about his work but he was reluctant to speak about it. It would take years of cajoling before he allowed Silvia to bring his work back to life.
Finally, recognition flowed. His first exhibition, Il Mio Mondo, was held at the gallery il museo del louvre in Rome, in 2016. Three years later, the MAXXI museum in the city staged a major retrospective, Mondo Perduto, with an accompanying monograph that is the only collection of his work to date.
Pierpaolo Piccioli, the creative director of Valentino, saw the MAXXI exhibition and, inspired by Di Paolo’s 1967 Valentino pictures, invited the then 94-year-old to photograph behind the scenes at the fashion house’s 2020 spring/summer couture show in Paris.
A documentary about Di Paolo’s life and work, The Treasure of His Youth, by the fashion photographer Bruce Weber, premiered at the Rome film festival in 2021 and is due for release in the UK next year. In May, to coincide with his 98th birthday, Di Paolo was awarded an honorary degree from La Sapienza.
He is survived by Elena, his children and two grandchildren, Matilde and Leonardo.