The Photography of Willy Rizzo
Born in Naples in 1929, Rizzo spent his childhood in France. In the 1940’s he began his photography career just as photojournalism was blooming and he secured a position with the French Magazine Paris Match in 1948, which gave him the opportunity to photograph some of the most famous people of the day. Married to the Italian actress Elsa Martinelli, gave Rizzo found himself with a key to Hollywood that that other photographers could only dream about it opened very many doors for the man and his camera.
During the 60’s Rizzio concentrated mainly on portrait work (eventually making a leap during the 70’s into furniture design) An obvious triumph for any photographer at this time would have been to secure a photo session with the worlds most iconic sex symbol of the silver screen – Marilyn Monroe. Using his obvious contacts, Rizzo felt he had nothing to lose in trying to secure a photo shoot with Marilyn. So, in 1962, 33 year old Rizzo contacted a friend who knew Marilyn’s agent and put his ‘crazy’ proposal forward.
Rizzo’s friend came back with the reply ‘impossible’ but he also implied that her publicity was not going very well and that a few attractive photos in a magazine might encourage her. Sure enough, the agent phoned back, Marilyn had said yes!
Rizzo wanted to shoot Marilyn in the morning, as the light is at its best at that time of day. Marilyn’s agent said no, the photo shoot would have to take place in the afternoon. The shoot was to take place at a friend’s house. On the day whilst waiting for Marilyn to arrive Rizzo received a call from her agent apologising and explaining that Marilyn would not be there as she was not feeling well but that she would endeavour to be there the following afternoon.
The next day Rizzo waited anxiously for Marilyn, who on this occasion did indeed turn up, at 6pm to apologise in person. She told him that she was sorry but she was too tired, she promised him that she would be there the next day and 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 ‘an underlying sadness about her’ but despite that Rizzo declared ‘it was as if all the most beautiful women in the world were there, rolled into one’ Rizzo had indeed already photographed most of those women, including Brigitte Bardot, Jayne Mansfield, Sophie Loren, Marlene Dietrich, Audrey Hepburn and Jane Fonda.
This was to become one of Marilyn’s most controversial photographic sittings. Marilyn fans have argued (similarly regarding Stern) that Rizzo took advantage of Marilyn who was clearly the worse for wear, and not in full control of her faculties. Today, many photographers aim to get just that spaced out shot, endeavouring to capture modern day celebs in states of disarray. Willy Rizzo said
It was a chaotic meeting as she was in a fragile emotional state, but she was gentle with me.'
The Marilyn fan community have argued as to whether or not it was ethical of Rizzo to shoot this session of Marilyn when she was clearly not in a fit state to do so, it seems the temptation was too much for the photographer and whilst it was obviously not in Marilyn’s best interest to have these photographs taken, they do give us a visible insight into Marilyn’s fragile vulnerability.
In the 1970's Rizzo became heavily involved in furniture design and is probably better known for his art deco style furnishings than his portrait photography.
Willy Rizzo died on 25th February 2013