Sometimes, you stumble upon art of such great beauty that you stop in your tracks with awe. Art can move you deeply, whether it is from the sensuality that you see portrayed, the boldness of colours, the inherent drama of juxtaposed images, or the sheer talent that is involved. Last week, I came across a photographer whose works transcended mere pictures and involved actual Art. It left me speechless. In an extremely hectic week, his photographs (if one can even call them that) felt almost like a port in the storm, a place where I could seek quiet refuge to soothe my frazzled soul.
Candice Swanepoel in “Strict” by Mert & Marcus for Interview Magazine September 2011.
I rarely talk about my love for photography, even to my friends, but I’ve had it since childhood. Other people’s photography, to be clear, as I have no talent of my own in this field whatsoever. I started by admiring the nature photography of Ansel Adams and the photojournalism of Robert Doisneau, then developed a particular interest in fashion and art photography. I have a huge passion for the works of the late, great Herb Ritts who is my absolute favorite, though I also really like Richard Avedon, and Helmut Newton. These days, I can fall down the rabbit-hole for hours staring at the strong, sexy women of Mert & Marcus, a brilliant duo who may be aesthetic sons of both of those last legends combined and whose work I’ve used a number of time for the blog.
Last week, I was calmly minding my own business, going about my work, when I received a very lovely email. I often receive notes from perfume lovers who want to talk about some of their favorite fragrances or to occasionally ask me a question. This one was from a chap called Roberto Greco who wrote that he was a photographer and a perfume addict who really appreciated my reviews. He added that he thought he’d share a link to some small photographs that he’d taken a year ago for himself. The mention of photographs was nothing big; it was all understated, presented more like a little vanity project that he’d done privately out of his love of perfumery and that he merely wanted to share with another perfume lover.
Willem Kalf, (1619-1693) “Still Life with Ewer, Vessels and Pomegranate.” The Getty Museum. Source: Wikipedia.
I clicked on the link, and… GOOD GOD! In fact, those were close to the actual words that I said to myself, since I just about fell over in my chair at what I saw. The next words which blasted through my mind were “Vermeer,” “Rembrandt,” and “Dutch Old Masters.” I was captivated, and wrote back to Mr. Greco with my astonishment. He’s an incredibly sweet man with excessive modesty, if you ask me, as he seemed rather amazed at my response. He shyly shared a few more of his photos and his main website, where I discovered further treasures, both perfume-related and otherwise.
I decided that I wanted as many people to see his work as possible, and asked him if he would mind if I highlighted his photos in a post on the blog. He has generously given me permission, and let me pick the images that I wanted to use, including several that were commissioned for commercial use by perfume houses, fashion designers, magazines or the like. (I insisted that he put a watermark and his name on them, lest they get stolen. Mr. Greco has a much kinder view of human nature than I do, but he put in a tiny one so that it wouldn’t ruin your enjoyment of the images.)
I’m really so happy to be able to share his work with you, because I think the word “talented” doesn’t even begin to describe him. So, I’ll start with the very first, initial photographs that I saw and that impressed me so much with their evocation of the classical still life painting tradition.
Look at his eye for details, from the giant beetle on the corner which matches the colour of the velvet in the next photo:There is no doubt that Mr. Greco is influenced by the Old Masters and the baroque tradition of still-life paintings. Some of the commercial work on his website makes that abundantly clear. Each work has such depth, richness, and dark luxuriousness, but I also love the extremely bold, powerful imagery. It hits you right off the bat, from contrast of colours, the unexpected juxtapositions, and those tiny, minute details that you only pick up if you look closer upon a second or third viewing. Honestly, I think this is actual Art, with a capital letter, more than just a mere photograph:
“Budgie and Pomegranate.”
“Girl and Grapes.”
Look at how the juices from the grape stain her thigh, in the photo above, and the luminescent light of her skin that speaks more to painting than photography. I think Vermeer and his Dutch brethren would be so impressed by Mr. Greco’s Girl with Grapes.
Yet, Mr. Greco doesn’t slavishly copy the classical Baroque tradition. He turns it upside down by inserting animals or unexpected details into his still-lifes.
“Still life with rats.”
“Still life with Discus fish.”
Commercial work for others can sometimes require an artist to restrain himself or to edit his voice, but I think Mr. Greco’s work remains powerful and still demonstrates his overall aesthetic beautifully.
Commissioned by Les Echos magazine.
“Bloody Wood” for the perfume house, Les Liquides Imaginaires
“Bello Rabelo” for Les Liquides Imaginaires.
“Dom Rosa” for Les Liquides Imaginaires
Photo commissioned by the fashion designer, Nunzio del Prete.
Commissioned by Les Restos d’Occase.
Photo commissioned by Oriza L. Legrand.
The funny thing about that last photo is that I actually saw it while I was in the Oriza L. Legrand boutique last fall in Paris. I distinctly remember the crown, and doing a double-take at it, thinking to myself, “What a fantastic picture. I wonder who took it?” The world is a very small, funny place at times.
I asked Mr. Greco about himself. His website biography talks about the exhibitions that he’s had, or the galleries that have proudly shown his work, but it doesn’t say much about the man himself. It’s clear he was educated in Switzerland, and that he now spends his time between Paris and Geneva, but little else. So, I asked Mr. Greco to write a tiny bit about himself, how he came to love perfume so much, and his aesthetic approach. English is not his primary language, but I think he managed beautifully:
I think it all started when, as a kid, my mother sprayed her perfume on my pillow to help me wait a long holiday absence. This smell was a picture, her face.
I’m a south Italian, but I was born in Geneva, Switzerland. At 15, I made studies in horticulture, but art was never really far. Indeed, I studied in 2 different art schools in Switzerland, and nature has a prominent place in my artistic work from the beginning.
Whether plants or animals in my childhood, the smell they gave off always fascinated me. Just a look at the steam emanating of a pile of wet leaves when it’s cold outside, will make you able to capture the complexity of all these organic things that surround us. All these smells are images. I will keep forever in my mind, and now I try to transcribe them in my art.
Once, an art director told me that my way of creating was the same as a perfumer. Different intensities which punctuate the picture. Here a detail, another one there, and then the rhythm starts to give the tempo and make an harmony …much like top notes , heart notes and base notes of a fragrance.
Recently, I found interesting to add a scent during my last personal exhibition. All the space was immersed in an animal and sweat scent. I make it by mixing different scents, and hidden some manure everywhere.
Today I am often asked to photograph perfumes, and it is a joy for me to marry two passions. Interpret the world of a fragrance while playing with the codes of art is an exciting challenge!
“Eaux Sanguines” for Les Liquides Imaginaires.
Currently I am very attracted to odours that remind me of my past. For example, olibanum incense is quite an obsession, probably because all those years I came to the church (Bois d’Encens by Armani Privé, Wazamba by Parfum D’ Empire, Olibanum by Profumum and Sancti by Les Liquides Imaginaires ). Woods and plants are also very present (Chêne and Iris Silver Mist by Serge Lutens, Virgilio by Diptyque).
Recently, I bought a perfume because when I smelled it, it referred me immediately to my Italian grandmother. It was obvious : this blend of lilies, dusty incense, wet clothes drying in the sun… It was her ! At least her image, because she doesn’t wear any perfume, and this is exactly for this kind of situation that I love and need perfume. (It was Relique d’Amour by Oriza L. Legrand ).
Now I live and work in Paris, and for a perfume addict like me, what could I expect more? [Emphasis to names with bolding added by me.]
Like every artist with depth, there is more to Mr. Greco than just baroque images or still lifes. He doesn’t limit himself to one particular thing, because photography is, at its heart, all about self-expression, a way to reveal different sides of oneself. Some of his perfume photos demonstrate a meditative, almost mystical quality, like the Chanel Cuir de Russie above, or the Opium photo below. Perfume bottles hidden by smoke, or the mists of time, perhaps. Others reflect a very modern sensibility with sleek minimalism or an almost textural, liquid feel.
Then, there is the joyous mood of his hyper-saturated, pastel photos. The candied simplicity of their pop cultural, Andy Warhol-like brightness is brilliantly intercut with the unexpectedness of hair — hair twisted to grow like living bushes or sculptured into sleek, architectural waves:
Photo with Olivier Schawalder, hairstylist.
Photo with Olivier Schawalder, hairstylist.
Photo with Olivier Schawalder, hairstylist.
Photo with Olivier Schawalder, hairstylist.
Valentino. Photo with Olivier Schawalder, hairstylist.
These are only a fraction of the multi-faceted things that Mr. Greco has done. You can see more of his artistic and exhibition work on his current website, but also on his earlier one that is devoted to some of his other projects, whether his personal perfume pictures, his fashion photography, videos, or the like.
One of my favorite things about blogging is the people who I meet, and the passions that they share with me. When I opened up that first email from Mr. Greco and diffidently clicked on the link enclosed, I had no expectations of anything. Humble, little photographs is essentially how he conveyed himself to me. I certainly didn’t expect to be blown away by Art, with a capital A. But that is what it is. Mr. Greco paints with his lens: textures, layers, moods, richness, and passion.
There is enormous depth and sensuality underlying his images, but a naughty, mischievous sense of humour, too, with the unexpected touches like the white mice in one of the still-life tableaux. (The piece is entitled “Still life with rats,” but they are cute little mice, not ugly rats, so I’m ignoring the official title.) Mr. Greco also throws in little “Easter egg” elements that reward the careful viewer who takes a second or third look, like the gigantic cicada (I thought it was a moth) hovering at the corner of the bowl of strawberries in his hanging Fish and Vegetable still-life for Les Restos d’Occase. I can look at his photos again and again, always finding new meaning or symbolism. A pink rose that drips like wax downwards, in contrast to the rigid, still, vertical legs going up of the dead bird in the corner. Or, the meatiness of the cherries that lie symbolically stabbed and bloodied by shards of glass in the photo, “Bloody Wood” for Les Liquides Imaginaires. So damn clever!
Many artists are temperamental creatures driven by ego or moods, and photographers are not necessarily an exception. I should know, as I have one in the family; a former fashion photographer who was even the legendary Helmut Newton’s assistant at one point. (If you want to talk about utterly crazy, egomaniacal geniuses, the late Helmut Newton might have topped the list.)
Yet, Mr. Greco seems to be quite a different sort of artist. Granted, I’ve only had email communication with him, but his modesty and consistently humble nature are striking. He is totally lacking in pretentious artifice or arrogance. All he sought to do in contacting me was to privately share his passion for perfumery. I’m the one who insisted on featuring him on the blog, because I thought that many of you would be as impressed as I was. And I really hope you have been. I also hope that you will share in the comments anything that struck you, moved you, or was a favorite, as well as the reasons why. If you have a message for Mr. Greco, please feel free to leave that, too. All artists love to hear feedback, or to learn about the emotional response that their creations evoke.
The great Ansel Adams once said, “You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.” In the case of Roberto Greco, you can add perfumes to that list as well.
Disclosure: All photos used by permission. Full rights are reserved to Mr. Greco, and nothing may be used without his express authorization. Please don’t steal and not give credit!