Guinevere, Paris, 2007 

The great French poet, Victor Hugo, wrote: “To love beauty is to see the light.” Over the course of several months, as they moved around the world - Paris, Ravenna, Rio de Janeiro, Cambridge, USA, Santiago, Madrid, Vienna - between June 2021 and September 2022, the photographer Paolo Roversi and the philosopher Emanuele Coccia, embraced Hugo’s sentence as their inspiration. In a series of letters they write to each other about light and the act of photographing, but also about people, life, about family, football, about how to be present, and about afterlife. It is a profoundly moving and human book: Paolo Roversi writes to his friend about his life in photography, his love of the sun since his childhood, about the great models who posed in front of his camera, his studio in Paris, his family. The philosopher, who, among many things, taught a hugely popular class on fashion at Harvard, responds to his friend by giving his very human and thoughtful take on what Roversi has shared with him. 

Roversi’s love of light, the very material of photography, goes way back. “The joy I carry inside of me," writes the photographer, "I owe it to the sun which, since I was a very small child, would warm me as soon as I jumped out of bed and sat on the steps of our house by the sea in Porto Corsini.” For Roversi, photography has given him the freedom to express and to share what is inside all of us. In that, “photography adds life to the world,” he says. 

Audrey, Paris, 1996. 

For Emanuele Coccia, a photographer is a magicien, an alchemist who captures the light a person carries inside themselves. “A photographer is the person who initiates a society to the mystery of light. The photographer is a shaman.” Paolo Roversi describes his discovery of another light. He recounts how, when meeting the model Kirsten Owen for the first time, he discovered another kind of light - “the inner light, the one which precisely reveals a presence. (...) It is a little like feeling the touch of the invisible. Something deeper. Presence manifests itself through the light, the light of the soul.”  As Carl Jung has said, “The only goal of human existence  is to light a light in the darkness of beings.”

Roversi compares each person to a vault, a treasure trunk. “If you manage to open it, you discover wonders and richness of feelings, memories, obsessions that it contains. Managing to open this vault gives you a wonderful emotion.”  Photography is not about capturing beauty, but freeing it and sharing it with the world. 

Roversi, who tells how he spent one night sleeping on the floor still stained with the chemicals by the window from which Niepce took what is considered the first ever image, Le Point de Vue du Gras (1827),  also compares the act of photographing to  meditation. The artist, who recognizes his indebtedness to India which made him understand the beauty of what he calls “the humble light”, explains that meditation is about focusing one’s mind and emptying it of any other thoughts, exactly what happens when he is taking the  portrait of the model in front of his camera. 

The great photographer defends fashion photography often considered trivial compared to war photography. Emanuele Coccia reminds us that fashion has been a companion to many revolutions which changed the way we live. 

The book is at its most moving when Paolo Roversi talks about his family. “There is a family light made up of lights distincts from thousands. Like for sounds and smells, there is a memory of lights. A faltering light on the ceiling, right after dusk, reminds me immediately of my mother’s kitchen, just as, in the spark and the flame of a lighter, I always see the face of my father lighting another one of his cigarettes.” 

The letters between Emanuele Coccia and Paolo Roversi show us that if photography is about light, the words of two generous and sensitive persons can also bring light in our lives.

Jean-Sébastien Stehli 

Paolo Roversi, Emanuele Coccia. Lettres sur la lumière. 168p., 60 photos. Gallimard. 30€

April 30, 2024 — Jean Sebastien Stehli