Ezra Petronio’s Polaroids of Fashion’s Most Famous Faces

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Portraits by Ezra Petronio © Ezra Petronio. Courtesy of Gale
Portraits by Ezra Petronio© Ezra Petronio. Courtesy of Galerie Gmurzynska

The Paris-based editor and photographer’s no-frills portraits of Karl Lagerfeld, Donatella Versace, Tom Ford and more are the subject of a new exhibition in Zurich

In 1994, art director and graphic designer Ezra Petronio launched Self Service magazine with a vision of breaking down the boundaries of the establishment. “It started in a very free, passionate, do it yourself manner with this idea of ‘us versus them,’” he tells AnOther. “Paris was very conservative then. The only kind of press our magazines would get was ‘heroin chic’ – but that total disconnect made it more exciting. We wanted to scream out. We had no filters; we just had a collective drive and ambition.”

Working with a vision to bring together emerging talents in photography, music, film, and fashion, Petronio recalls the thrill of making the early issues of Self Service: “It was 16 colour pages and staples and you had to do everything: you had to sell your advertising, print the magazine, go on your scooter and drive around an distribute it at newsstands, then have your friends buy it to increase demand.”

But above all, what Self Service needed was great portraits of the people being celebrated in each issue. Petronio approached Jean-Baptiste Mondino, who advised him to go the DIY route. Petronio did just that, using a Big Shot Land camera to create Polaroid portraits of the people being profiled. The camera, a favourite of Andy Warhol’s, allowed Petronio to create an extraordinary collection of everyone from Karl Lagerfeld, Virgil Abloh and Vivienne Westwood to Naomi Campbell, Nan Goldin and Kim Gordon. Now the portraits are on show in a new exhibition and monograph, Ezra Petronio: Stylistics

For each issue, Petronio would bring together an eclectic and engaging mix of artists and icons across multiple disciplines. “I was always fascinated by creative minds, regardless of their medium or what they do, but people pushing their craft and themselves,” he says.

“I would go to Art Basel and set up a booth there and document the art world in depth, or Jay-Z would invite me to one of his concerts and I would document the energy and the people in a real and truthful manner. At a happening like Nick Knight’s Showstudio, where we’re shooting 100 people in three days, we would set up a lounge with Ronnie Wood sitting next to Lee Alexander McQueen while they talked. All these people met, so it was quite enjoyable and created an atmosphere people want to be part of.”

Over the past 20 years, Petronio has amassed more than 4,000 portraits that are in equal parts intimate, engaging and revelatory. Describing himself as a “character photographer”, Petronio creates an intimate setting for each shoot, taking great care to ensure a feeling of comfort, trust and collaboration.

“I have my rituals: a table with a white cloth, a candle, flowers and music. I spend time speaking with them, explaining the process,” he says. “What I like about the restrictions of the format is that it's stripped from any context so it forces me to be one on one with each person. It’s a very intimate process. It’s about me capturing their inner beauty, strength and soul to create something that’s genuine.” 

Petronio takes tremendous care to ensure each sitter enjoys the process. He shares the memory of an encounter with Janet Jackson just three weeks after Michael’s death. “She wanted to meet and we ended up talking for two hours; then she said, ‘I’m into a Polaroid.’ I was ultra-nervous,” he recalls. “She sent everyone out of the room and then said, ‘Now I’m all yours. You can do whatever you want.’ It’s a question of trust.”

Ezra Petronio: Stylistics is at Galerie Gmurzynska in Zurich until 22 February 2022.