Born in a small town in southern Italy, Paolo arrived in Rome after high school to study philosophy and classical literature. Although his artistic abilities initially leaned toward painting, he soon moved toward photography and its possibilities. He eventually worked for the publication Il Mondo and would become one of its most essential contributors over the next 14 years. And although his portraits of the cultural elite were undeniably striking, he was equally adept at using his camera to capture images of the lower classes struggling to rebuild in the aftermath of the war. He created shots that could tell stories on their own without the need for any text to convey the narratives.
The examples of his work that we see here remain striking to this day, making his decision to walk away from it even more baffling. Part of this decision was practical—Il Mondo, which had been his crucial outlet, went out of business—and part of it was philosophical—the other magazines and papers were relying more and more on the scandalous scoops of the increasingly prevalent paparazzi, a form of photojournalism he refused to partake in. He claims to have been entirely comfortable with the decision to abandon photography, but when someone demonstrates such prodigious talent in a particular artistic field, can they just turn it off like that? If so, can they turn it back on again? That latter question becomes important when a 2019 exhibition of Paolo’s work, spurred on by Silvia’s desire to reintroduce her father’s work to the world, leads to an offer for his first photography job in over a half-century, shooting a 2020 fashion show displaying the works of designer Pier Paolo Piccolini.
Not surprisingly, “The Treasure of His Youth,” which Weber shot in black-and-white to better correspond with Paolo’s imagery, is an uncommonly beautiful-looking documentary. It also has, in Paolo, a genial subject who conveys his experiences as a top photographer in a soft-spoken but always interesting manner. Unfortunately, however, the film makes two mistakes that keep it from completely working. For starters, I found myself wishing for a little more detail about Paolo’s working process—while it’s easy to recognize the beauty of his work (and those last fashion show shots reveal that even at the age of 94, he had not lost his eye for composition and imagery), I would have liked to know more about what separates his method from that of others. Additionally, while it’s clear he was happy with his decision to abandon the world of photography with such totality, I wish that Weber could have pressed him a little further regarding that decision and if it was truly as effortless as Paolo makes it out to be.