Photographer Mirella Ricciardi was born in Kenya when it was still a colony of British East Africa, to an Italian father and a French mother. She grew up on the shores of Lake Naivasha in a household that was both sophisticated and wild. Her book ‘Vanishing Africa’ has been called ‘a masterpiece of photographic excellence’. Mirella Ricciardi now lives in England.
What is your reaction to the terrible news of the murder of the American conservationist Bradley Martin, one of the world’s leading investigators of the illegal trade in ivory and rhino horn?
I was a friend of his and lived opposite him and his wife Chrissy when I was in Nairobi. I met them on the flight that first brought them to Kenya in the early 70s when my book ‘Vanishing Africa’ was published – they were young and excited about their break away from a conventional American lifestyle and had not yet had any idea what they were going to do in Africa. This brutal end to their romantic African odyssey is yet another illustration of why I left Africa.
Why did you leave Africa?
I no longer wanted to live as a white person in a black man’s country which had no honestly enforced rule of law. In 2000 I came to London. I went back to Africa only once, in 2007, to do a story for ‘Vanity Fair’ on the conservationists.
But isn’t Africa your life and inspiration?
I was born in Africa in 1931, I grew up in Africa, and I was inspired by Africa. That was the main force that pushed me through life. I thank God for my African connection, it is part of my past, but luckily I have been able to evolve and not get stuck in Africa. I have a modern vision of photography.
“I no longer wanted to live as a white person in a black man’s country which had no honestly enforced rule of law.”
What still connects you to Africa?
Today it’s the art that interests me. I discovered the new art of Africa at the Contemporary African Art Fair at Somerset House two years ago. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It is phenomenal.
Where else did you work?
In 1990 I did the Brazilian Amazon. I went to look for the original people before they too changed. I found them and did a book called ‘Vanishing Amazon’ and a film for the BBC. That was my last big safari and it was so tough.
You went alone?
I can’t work with anybody near me. I went into the Amazon for six months by myself. I was 60. Age has never counted for me. I didn’t speak a word of Brazilian, I just knew I had to go. Little by little I worked my way into the jungle, I even learnt to speak Brazilian. I found the people that I was looking for, and did fantastic photographs.
Why were your parents in Africa?
My mother was an artist in Paris, born in the end of the eighteen hundreds, a pupil of Rodin. The Rodin Museum was created in Rue de Varenne at her instigation. She eloped to Africa with my Napolitan father in 1927.
How come she did that?
One night at her uncle’s dinner party she sat next to a man called Baron Empain, the creator of the Metro in Paris and also the major shareholder of the Katanga copper mines in the Belgian Congo. She accepted his invitation to visit him in Africa. Before then she had met my father, but he didn’t want to marry a rich lady and she was very rich. So he fled to America to get away from her. She went after him to America and said, “I have been invited to Africa by Baron Empain. You have to go with me!” And he said, “No!” And she said, “Yes!” He had nothing and she had everything, so she won.
They went on safari together?
She made an appointment to meet the Baron Empain in the same place that Livingstone met Stanley, in Ujiji. Baron Empain used that address to meet my mother. He thought she was coming alone.
He didn’t know she was with your father?
He didn’t know. They met with Baron Empain, they went with him for a while, and then one day my father turned to my mother and said, “We didn’t come to Africa to drink. We have to leave this man. We are not going to stay with him because he is a drunk.” They went to see a governor of the area and said, “We don’t want to stay with Baron Empain anymore. We want to go off on our own.” They put together a safari and found 60 black people to carry their safari equipment on their heads. They went on foot for one year across the African jungle. They were real explorers. Can you imagine what the Congo must have been like in 1927?
What happened to them?
During this journey my mother got pregnant and when the time came my father said, “What are we going to do about this birth? It’s either in a tent or we find a hospital.” They looked at the map and saw that Kenya, the country next to the Congo, was British. My father said, “The British are known for having good hospitals. Let’s go to Kenya!” So they walked into Kenya, and on 19th January 1930 my brother was born in a Nairobi hospital.
And you were born there?
In 1931. My sister was born 18 months after me. My parents lived in Kenya for the rest of their lives. They are buried there.
Wasn’t your Italian father interned because of Mussolini?
In 1940 Mussolini made his speech on the balcony in the Palazzo Venezia in Rome and declared war on Britain. An hour later there was a knock on the door and the police said to my father, “I am so sorry. We’ve come to take you.” That night he left for five years. When the war stopped in ‘45 I was 15, my brother was 17, my sister was 13. We didn’t even remember him, but I remember the night he came back. That I remember.
“Hollywood wanted to discover a new star, and they wanted me to be that new star, and I didn’t want to do it.”
Why did you become a photographer?
My mother was against the way young girls were being brought up. She decided that young girls needed to be independent of their men. She didn’t believe that young girls should have careers, but said, “They need to have serious hobbies on which to fall back in case of necessity.” She suggested photography for me.
Did she buy a camera for you?
No, she took me to Paris and introduced me to members of her family who were in the photographic world of fashion. One was a director of ‘Vogue’, another was director of ‘Le Jardin des Modes’. They introduced me to a wonderful young Russian photographer called Harry Meerson. I moved into his world age 19, and was completely bewitched by him and his work.
Which was your first camera?
I started with a Rolleiflex. The Russian photographer taught me the rudiments of photography, how the lens works and the apertures and the focusing, in order to learn how to use my camera.
Why did you go back to Africa?
One day I got a letter from my mother. My father had had a horse riding accident and broken his back. They didn’t know whether he was going to live. I dropped everything, but once I was back in Africa, after my life in Paris, I couldn’t stand it. It was so boring.
So what did you do?
Aged 22 I went to New York and I joined the New York School of Photography. In New York my uncle gave me the address of a photographer called Erwin Blumenfeld. I went to see him and he told me, “You have to go out and take your own photographs, and when you’ve taken them, bring them to me. I will look at them and I’ll tell you what I find in these photographs.” I didn’t have a clue how to go about this. I was absolutely uninspired by New York. I didn’t know what to photograph.
When did you get married?
Back in Kenya in 1957 I got a phone call from somebody who I didn’t know. He said, “We are a movie company who have just arrived in Nairobi. We’re at the bar of a night club having a drink, and behind the bar are the most beautiful photographs we have ever seen in our life.” They wanted to hire me and I made an appointment for 11 o’clock the next morning. There was Lorenzo, waiting for me on the pavement of his hotel, all dressed in white, with Jesus sandals, long blond hair down to his shoulders, curly blond, strumming a guitar. That was the man that I married, a tumultuous marriage to a man who was not a family man. In his own words he was, “a vagabond, a gypsy, a man without purpose or direction.” But I loved him. It was not love – it was obsession. For 40 years it lasted.
Did he help your career?
For ten years we lived in Rome. He was trying to get into the movies, it was the heyday of the Italian movie world in the late 50s early 60s, Fellini and Antonioni and so on. We moved in that circle. I was waiting for him to emerge, because I never wanted to be anybody in my own right. I wanted to live in the shadow of a man; I didn’t want to throw the shadow.
Maasai Warrior with Lion’s Mane Headress, 1968
Mirella Ricciardi and Paramount Chief, 1968
Orma woman covering her face, 1968
Did you work as an actress?
I worked with Antonioni in ‘The Eclipse’(1962) with Monica Vitti, and I went to Hollywood. They wanted to discover a new star, and they wanted me to be that new star, and I didn’t want to do it. When the time came to do the screen test I said: “No thank you.” It wasn’t for me. I got on the aeroplane and flew back. My husband never forgave me. When my marriage fell apart I left him and went to live in Paris with the children. I got the commission on the book ‘Vanishing Africa’ and flew to Kenya and took the children with me.
Did you have a passion for African people?
Ever since I was a small child my mother would point out to me the beauty of the African people. She would tell me: “Look at the way they stand. Look at the way they hold their heads. Look at the size of their hands. Look at the grace they move in.” When I came to taking photographs, those things went into my head. That is what I looked for. It was a purely aesthetic view.
When did you meet the American photographer Peter Beard?
In the 60s, when I was doing ‘Vanishing Africa’. In 1965 he had published a book called ‘The End of the Game’. We shared the story of Iman.
My brother worked in Nairobi and had a travel agency. One day I was sitting with him before going out to lunch, and, as I was talking to him, suddenly this creature walked into the office. I looked at her and I said: “Oh my God! Who the hell is this?” He said, “Ah, she used to be my secretary, but she was no good so I fired her.” It was Iman! I asked her, “Have you ever had any photographs taken?” She said, “No.” I said, “Would you like to take some photographs with me?” She said, “Oh well, why not.” I took her to Peter Beard’s camp to photograph her.
The following day Peter was walking in the street and Iman was coming down the road opposite him. When he heard I had photographed her he called me up and said, “Mirella who is this girl? Could we do a shoot together?” I said, “What do you mean, do a shoot together? Either you do the shoot or I do it, but as I’ve done it already you do it because we can’t do it together.” So he pulled her in. He brought in a make-up person. He did her hair and everything, and took a real New York shoot of her. He developed the film, he saw the photographs, he took the photographs, he got on an aeroplane, he flew to New York, and he put them on the desk of Wilhelmina Models. The rest is history.
What kind of photography do you now do?
I’ve gone digital. I never considered myself a photographer, I’ve always been a frustrated painter, but I’ve never been able to draw or paint. Now I have married my camera to my computer, and I’m finally painting.
London, February 2018
All images in this interview are Copyright © Mirella Ricciardi and used by kind permission of the Mirella Ricciardi Photographic Archive. Archivist: Amina Ricciardi-Dempsey, email@example.com
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