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The Genius of Willy Rizzo

Italian born photographer Willy Rizzo (1928-2013) began his career in the golden age of photojournalism and went on to become famed for his memorable and iconic portraits of celebrity.

He took his first photographs at the early age of 12 when his family were living in Paris. As a teenager, during the Nazi occupation of the city, Rizzo bought his first Rolliflex camera on the black market. This camera and his natural talent led to a job as a reporter and him traveling to Tunisia to photograph harrowing scenes of burnt out tanks on the battlefields. Rizzo then went on to cover the Nuremberg Trials and the French Indochina War.

After the war he began photographing celebrity, when he was recruited by 'France Dimanche' and was sent to Cannes, to cover the first film festival. This was the start illustrious career photographing the beautiful and the famous.

Having lived in Los Angeles for a while, working with magazines such as 'Life', he returned to Paris to work on the creation of the new magazine 'Paris Match' in 1949.  This began a prestigious working relationship with the magazine which lasted 20 years, creating countless covers.

He was the last to photograph Marilyn, he charmed Marlene Dietrich into a rare photo shoot and he took one of the few known photographs of Coco Chanel laughing.  His subjects spanned seven decades, from the 1940s to the 21st century and include:  Audrey Hepburn, Salvador Dalí, Sophia Loren, Marilyn Monroe, Yves Saint Laurent, Catherine Deneuve, Brad Pitt, Le Corbusier, Marlene Dietrich, Jack Nicholson, Joan Collins, Picasso, Sarah Vaughan, Joan Crawford, Milla Jovovich, Jane Fonda, Jean Cocteau, Josephine Baker, Mademoiselle Coco Chanel, a very young and playful Brigitte Bardot and Jayne Mansfield photographed in her outrageously opulent bath-tub.

In 1954, he became the Artistic Director of Marie Claire Magazine and also continued to collaborate with other key fashion publications and began working as a regular Fashion Photographer with Vogue in 1959.

In 1962 he photographed one of the biggest sex symbols and icons of the silver screen, Marilyn Monroe. Monroe failed to turn up for the appointed meeting and showed up the following day to apologise in person, saying that she was too tired again that day to be photographed, but promised again to be there the next day, Rizzo replied "For you, I would wait a week!"

True to her word, Marilyn was there the next day, a July afternoon, two weeks before she died. She had done her own make up and Rizzo recalled that she had "...made a bit of a hash of it" and that there was " underlying sadness about her" but despite that, Rizzo declared that " was as if all the most beautiful women in the world were there, rolled into one!" 

In 1968 Rizzo married Italian film star Elsa Martinelli, they moved to Rome where Rizzo launched a new career. Inspired heavily by Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe (both of whom he had photographed), he began working as a furniture designer, a field in which he had no experience, but gained notable success.

This was something that he was to continue and remain passionate about throughout his life. His name remains today synonymous with both photography and furniture design alike.

From Rome, he returned to Paris and continued to photograph some of the most famous people of the day, including some of the most beautiful women of the 20th and early 21st centuries.  Immortalising them with his lens, to create breath-taking and iconic images.

Willy Rizzo “had” all the stars, or just about.  From Marilyn to Bardot, from Marlene to his great friend Jack Nicholson. Those who said yes to, and sometimes even solicited the photographer are world famous.

He was the recorder and witness of generations.

Earlier Event: 2 July
Lovely Young
Later Event: 8 December
Take Five