You guys all know who Paul Barbera is. You know because I maaaay have blogged his brilliant Where They Create project more than once in the last 6 months…!! I am not usually into such repetition… but TRULY it is just so insanely great, showcasing the workspaces of creative people across the globe in such a unique and effortlessly natural way. I am not sure how Paul finds all these incredible places to shoot… but each image somehow feels as though it were taken by a close and trusted friend – personal and genuinely insightful, though always tinged just slightly with a kind of dark, voyeuristic curiosity! Magic.
Paul is a Melbourne-born photographer – he completed a fine arts degree at the VCA in 2004, and it is incredible to think that in only 6 years since then, Paul has already earned himself a respected reputation both at home and overseas. He got his first big break with a job for Marie Claire Lifestyle at just 24, and has since worked for a string of high profile publications and clients – including Australian Vogue Living, and the always fabulous Elle Decor (UK and Italian editions).
What is also truly inspiring is Paul’s commitment to spanning his career across multiple continents! Currently he divides his time between Melbourne and Amsterdam, also working often in other major cities across Europe. I am absolutely baffled by how he manages to make this work(!!) – however in his answers below, Paul insists that it is manageable if you really commit to working hard, meeting lots of people, and being totally clear about your vision…! Wow… he makes it sounds so simple! I am convinced there must be more blood, sweat and tears involved that he isn’t letting on!!!
Tell me a little about your background – what path led you to what you’re doing now?
My dad was a Vespa mechanic who migrated to Melbourne from Italy and in his spare time, he took photos with his Rolleiflex and made pieces of furniture and metal sculptures. He never had any formal training, but he had a creative side that he passed on to me and my brother, Daniel, who is now a furniture designer. However, I didn’t discover my photographic skills until I was 16. I went on a trip to Egypt with my father and he gave me a Minolta to use. Until then, I struggled at school and did not know what I wanted to do in life.
You completed a fine arts degree at the VCA in 2004 – how does a fine arts graduate navigate the perilous world of commercial photography!? (Especially in Europe!?) What was the big break that helped launch your career?
I would say Europe responds to and respects those who have a fine arts background and/or have a clear vision about their work, as it gives you a stronger voice and allows you to contextualise your work. However, in terms of practical and technical experience, I learnt these skills through assisting photographers so in the early days of my career, I actually did not use much of my fine arts training. It was not until I started to work as a freelance photographer and wanted to balance commercial work with my own photographic projects that I turned back to what I had learnt at the VCA to find my feet.
My first big break came at 24, when I was asked to shoot an editorial for Marie Claire Lifestyle. I had not done much interior work before, but the then editor, Karen McCartney, liked what she saw when I sent her a polaroid of a chair I had shot for a designer. I also got a similar break from the design firm Fabio Ongarato Design, who asked me to shoot a campaign image for the Melbourne Underground Fashion Festival and that sparked my interest in working with fashion and people.
You work between Melbourne and Amsterdam – and everywhere inbetween…(!!) seems like a brilliantly inspiring lifestyle for any young creative… How do you make this work?
Everything is possible, but you need to make the decision that that’s the lifestyle that you want. You can build your life around constant travel, but it’s not all smooth sailing. It gets hard to pay bills on time, and make commitments 6 to 12 months in advance. Sometimes you get offered a job, but you happen to be on the other side of the world, and you miss that opportunity to work with a new magazine or client. This just happened to me recently when Lafayette, a department store in Paris, wanted to book me but the timing did not work out.
To make it work, you have to focus your time and energy establishing yourself in a new place. Some places take longer than others. But the younger you are, the easy it is to do because you do not need a lot of things, you can live cheaply and have less responsibilities. The irony is that you also might not have your vision or visual communication worked out either. But I think it is very possible to live between two or more places – just be humble about what to expect, work hard, meet lots of people, be clear about why you’re there and your vision, and everything should fall into place.
Where might we have we seen your work? What have been some favourite shoots / clients / publications?
My work is mostly focused on space, interiors and natural light, which is how I approach Where They Create. But I also work in studios and on location with film lighting, which is very controlled and very constructed. I just shot actor Kodi Smit-McPhee in this way for Black Book.
A couple of years ago, I photographed the wine labels for Moorilla Estate. I worked with an amazing team of people including choreographer Phillip Adams and the members of Ballet Lab. You may have also seen the campaign I shot for Wolf Blass a few years ago, of a woman holding an eagle.
And in the interior/natural light direction, one of my favourite collaborators is Frank Visser from Amsterdam. I think he’s a genius with colour. Marcel Van Doorn is another amazing stylist. Both are good friends of mine and I enjoy working with them.
Magazines that I have been published in include Elle Decor (UK), Elle Decor (Italy), Bloom, Vogue Living (Australia), InStyle (Australia), Grazia (Italy) and Inside (Australia).
In the last couple of years I have started to delve into books, but unfortunately, they are only available in Europe. I shot a coffee table book called Metropolitan Luxury, which featured the work of celebrity Dutch interior designer Eric Kuster. I was able to visit some amazing villas in Bali, Spain and south of France. I also shot a cupcake book, called Happiness is a Cupcake. It was a completely different process as we were working out of a kitchen and living room of a gorgeous apartment in Amsterdam (it had been converted from an old school). It was not my usual subject matter and I had to be talked into it. However, I was sold on the idea that I was shooting mini interiors, and I have to say I really enjoyed it.
What does a typical day at work involve for you?
If I am not shooting, I normally start my day at 8am at my local cafe for an hour of thinking, writing out my things to do for the day. I love writing lists. Then I will head back to my studio where I live and work from–I built it with my brother a few years ago. I could spend most of the day editing, as I always have at least 4-6 stories that need editing for Where They Create or any other number of jobs waiting to get out. I shoot more than I have time to put work online…in a way, shooting is the fun easy bit, it’s the editing, backing up and admin stuff that takes up my time.
I will normally have a hit of ping pong during the day just to have a break.
I also seem to spend a lot of time following up emails. In the evenings, if I am not entertaining or going out, I might keep working till late.
Where do you turn for creative inspiration – travel, local and international design trends, magazines, books or the web etc?
Travel is number one. I also love love love blogs. In fact I run a little site just for myself where I keep a lot of links of interesting work. It’s called Stuff People Send Me. I haven’t really shared it with people, but it’s out there if anyone is curious about it.
I also enjoy talking with people with diverse backgrounds. A priest on a train to Belgium gave me an idea for my next project. Walking (and only walking) through the red light district of Toyko gave me another.
Which other photographers, artists or creative people do you admire?
What would be your dream creative project?
To do more books that will ideally let me travel for 6 months of the year. Further afield, I would like to try my hand at DOP work one day…
What are you looking forward to?
My Dutch summer and planning my move to the states next year.
Melbourne Questions –
What is it that brings you back to Melbourne when you could easily settle down and base yourself solely in Europe?
Family, i think this is the main one, I also have great friends here… culture, food… summer. I like getting the best of both worlds.
What/where was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?
I had dinner for friend who had returned to Australia for a short visit from Amsterdam. We went to Gills Diner. I definitely indulged myself with the pork belly.
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
I will go to Collingwood farmer’s market with my partner and mum once a month, otherwise I sleep in until 9. I try not to work but sometimes I can’t help myself.
Melbourne’s best kept secret?
Yarraville… I am a little biased as it is where I spend most of my time, but it’s got a great mix of food (I have a coffee everyday at the Corner Shop) and the Sun Theatre is great place to watch a movie.