The license plate on his Chevy Silverado truck neatly sums up the philosophy of photographer Paolo Marchesi: “Hang 11.” Whether it is photographing an ice climber while hanging from the face of a mountain, diving with giant Humboldt squid or elk hunting in the mountains of Montana, where he lives much of the year, he gives it his all and is prepared for a range of consequences. The result is usually an amazing image, but twice it has involved stitches.
The adventurous Italian has produced award-winning and jaw-dropping work for DDB Worldwide, Publicis, Landor Associates, McCann Erickson, Mullen and other top agencies for a range of clients including MillerCoors, Partida Tequila, Montana and Wyoming Tourism, Ritz Carlton Resorts, Motorola, Visa, Trout Unlimited and Johnson & Johnson. His most recent accolades include Lürzer’s Archive 200 Best Ad Photographers Worldwide 2012 and Graphis’s 100 Best in Photography 2012.
A curving river shot in silvery early morning light, spotlighting two distant fishermen is still one of his most popular images. You can almost feel the icy water, and imagine the bracing wind through the trees. It’s that ability to capture the soul-stirring beauty of untrammeled nature that first brought him to the attention of art directors.
His love of nature and photography started early in life. He claims that an encounter, at the age of four, with a fish in a river in the Italian Alps set him on the inexorable course to become a photographer of the natural world. It just took a while to come full circle with a career centered on capturing that feeling.
“My father was an avid amateur photographer and growing up I remember his boxes of cameras that we were not allowed to touch as kids. They were forbidden to us and that made them even more precious in our minds,” Marchesi relates. “He passed away when I was sixteen and a few years later I inherited the boxes. When I opened them, I was surprised to find a beautiful 35mm Leica M3 system and a medium-format Hasselblad with two lenses. I took my first pictures with them and used them to start my career as a photographer.”
He graduated from the Istituto Europeo di Design in Milan, with a design degree, and worked as a junior art director in Paris and as a designer in Italy until he picked up a camera. “It didn’t take me long to realize I was more interested in images than being an art director,” he explains. “Photography gave me more freedom to explore and express myself in a direct way.”
Relocating to the US, he received a degree in commercial photography from Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California, and immediately moved to San Francisco.
His early fly-fishing photography was done out of obsession. He was living and working in San Francisco, but spent every weekend heading out of town to explore and fly fish. “I lived and longed for those weekends, and I started taking pictures just because I wanted to take a little piece of those rivers back home with me. I didn’t really plan to do anything with these images other than just look at them and dream about my next outing,” Marchesi relates. Over the course of a few years, he built a library of these images and one day he submitted some of them to California Fly Fisher. That submission turned into his first magazine cover and started his career as a “fly-fishing” photographer.
With that validation, and ready to leave the urban jungle, in the spring of 1999 he packed everything in a U-Haul and relocated to Bozeman, Montana, a city of less than 40,000 (making it the fourth-largest city in the state). The college town is a gateway community to Yellowstone National Park. The abundant wildlife, and the proximity to the Gallatin, Madison and Yellowstone rivers, is the perfect setting for the 43-year-old photographer. “Moving to Montana was probably the scariest and greatest decision of my life,” he claims.
His home on a tree-laden street near Bozeman’s historic Main Street is neat and arranged with a deliberate eye. Photo diptychs of fish, processed to bring out exquisite detail, hang on the walls along with a small gallery of flower close-ups, shot against pure white. These complement the mounted elk antlers that take pride of place. A sleek Airstream Bambi trailer is parked in front, and behind the house is a garage filled with off-road motorbikes, a 4-wheeler and a custom camper that fits the Silverado for when he winters in Baja California. He picked the location because of surfing: “Todos Santos gets a good Northwest swell that starts in October and usually ends in April. Perfect timing to escape the winter.” The sleepy surf town where the desert meets the Sierra de la Laguna mountains provides a complete contrast to the forests, meadows and rivers of Montana. Its location on the west coast of Mexico 45 miles north of Cabo San Lucas makes it easy to fly into, and with high-speed Internet and an Internet phone, he can work from Mexico as easily as Montana.
His small but efficient studio is located in a historic building housing Bozeman’s Emerson Center for the Arts and Culture. A counter holding light tables covers the large darkroom sink; like most photography studios in a digital age, computers and a large-format printer have replaced the darkroom. The walls are vivid shades of raspberry and turquoise, chosen by his nephews on a visit from Italy.
He prefers to work at first and last light. He has an uncanny knack of following divers, mountain climbers and other adventurous souls, duplicating their movements, immersing himself in the experience and bringing back the definitive moments.
Weight and portability are issues when shooting in nature. “On physically challenging shoots I have carried as little as two bodies and two lenses to be as light as possible,” Marchesi says. Capturing such scenes as a pair of skiers skiing between glaciers doesn’t give you a second chance to get the shot.
Passion is the word he most identifies with. His passion is demonstrated in his perfectionism and his total immersion into experience. He bow hunts solo on foot, in grizzly country, with Tobi, a small-framed German shorthaired pointer and his faithful canine companion of eleven years. The elk he brought down shortly before my arrival, took him—after quartering it—from 9 p.m. until 5 a.m. the following morning to pack out in a total of five trips. Each trip is more dangerous than the last because the chance of a grizzly finding the kill increases. (This did happen once, and he ceded the bear his elk.) Provisioning for the winter is a big part of his lifestyle, and one that has added immeasurably to his photography.
Determined to show me one of his favorite hunting spots, we drove an hour or so outside of Bozeman, and then traveled fifteen miles up a narrow steep track to wide-open meadows—truly Big Sky Country. At the very end of the trail the four-wheeler decided to quit! Fortunately a hunter who hunted, he said, from nap to nap, showed up and towed us back to civilization. In classic style—according to his friends—Marchesi was disappointed that we didn’t have to hike out. Despite the signs warning of grizzly-bear territory, I was strangely sanguine about the experience, figuring anyone who hunted alone in the woods for days on end would probably get me back alive.
“Our collaborations have consistently delivered some of the best photography that Outside has had the privilege of publishing, and it’s because he holds life and nature in such high regard,” says Hannah McCaughey, design and photo director of the magazine. Photo editor Amy Silverman agrees, “Paolo is one of those photographers who will go to the ends of the earth to get the shot. He will literally risk life and limb to bring back the best images. He’s out there living the life that Outside is all about, so he really gets it.”
According to Dylan Tomine, freelance creative director and author of Closer To The Ground: An Outdoor Family’s Year on the Water, in the Woods and at the Table, “Paolo is a lunatic in the best sense of the word, which is to say that if you can dream up a shot, he will get it. No matter what. In our work together he’s gone ten feet under murky pond water, used rock climbing ascenders to hang from trees, stood in relentless Olympic Peninsula rain for hours and dealt with an unexpectedly drunk model. Every time, he got the shot, and it was better than anyone could have imagined.”
Marchesi sums up his career in his direct style, “I don’t stage what I shoot and I don’t shoot what I don’t understand. My photography reflects my lifestyle. I photograph what I do and if it’s a climbing picture, or a fly-fishing picture, or a surfing picture, or just nature, I want people to feel the passion I have for what I photograph.” That is the easy part—all you have to do is look. ca