Iconic Spotlight : Romy Schneider, by Eva Sereny

Romy Schneider

As I remember, that 1971 spring evening in Rome started off as being calm – in fact rather dull – until suddenly things took an unexpected turn. Rain became hail and started beating against the windows: in the distance thunder was audible. Then lightning fused all the lights in the house, and Kim (our dog) nearly had a heart attack when the next blast of thunder exploded.

The phone rang, interrupting my search for candles. I picked up the receiver and an unrecognisable female voice apologised for the late hour. For one brief moment I couldn’t put a face to the voice, and then it came to me, it was Romy Schneider, whom I had met a few days earlier on the set of Joe Losey’s Trotsky, while I was doing some special photography. She hesitatingly asked if we could have a photo session. She happened to be in that kind of mood. My heart missed a beat. Romy Schneider was asking to have a photo session with me! This was a very unusual situation. It’s usually the other way around.

I made plans to fetch her from her Roman residence near the Roman Forum and then take her to the studio. A second later it dawned on me – what studio? I didn’t have one! A few urgent calls and I arranged the use of a friend’s studio space, just off Piazza di Spagna.

I drove as fast as I could through the narrow, cobbled streets to Romy’s place, my windscreen wipers battling to provide me with clear vision. On my arrival Romy threw a pile of clothes and other bits and pieces into the boot of my car, while the hall porter tried to protect her (and her magnum bottle of Möet & Chandon) from the unrelenting downpour, with an enormous multi-coloured umbrella.

Romy Schneider

As soon as we reached the studio, which was located in an old Roman “palazzo”, I began to position the lights, unhappily alone, as I couldn’t find an assistant at that late hour. Romy in the meantime was preparing herself in the adjacent dressing room.

When Romy stepped into the studio, her hair tightly pulled back – her make-up emphasising her sparking eyes and full lips – looking seductive in her black dress which had a slightly transparent organza bodice, I was certain we were embarking on Romy Schneider was asking to have a photo session with me! This was a very unusual situation. It’s usually the other way around” “ —198— —199— an exciting experience. She went straight to the hi-fi and put on one of the albums that she had brought with her: sweet sentimental tunes filled the small studio.

However, at this point, Romy was still finding it difficult to get into the appropriate mood. She was fidgety and distant: we both knew that it was essential to have the right atmosphere for the pictures to be special. Then with a start, she jumped up from her sitting position in front of the camera, and started going through her pile of albums until she found the one she was looking for. If my memory isn’t deceiving me, it was a selection of Edith Piaf ’s songs.

Whatever it was, this did the trick. Her mood immediately changed, and she was ready for the “click” of the camera. She responded to my direction and we both felt that the session was moving along the right track. I constantly encouraged her with the usual compliments that every photographer shouts or murmurs to a subject while photographing.

Romy Schneider

At a certain point we both decided that it was time to change outfits. When she reappeared, her hair was loose, and she was wearing a short black jersey dress. Her presence was like a breath of fresh air. She moved impishly and seductively around the studio, seemingly oblivious to the camera.

In fact, she moved around far too much. When one uses the electronic flash, the aperture of the lens is determined by the distance of the subject from the flash. The shoot had taken on an exciting rhythm, and there was no way I would break up or interfere with these special moments; so, there was nothing left but to hope and pray that I had struck lucky with my aperture. It was impossible to get her to stay in position. She was either carried away emotionally or she was constantly moving from her working position to refill her glass with champagne. Then I had a brainwave: I told her to put the bottle beside her on the floor. So, in that way, she was nearly always in position. My strategy worked!

Unfortunately, I’m not endowed with a remarkable memory, so I can’t remember what course our conversation took. As far as I remember, Romy’s euphoria came principally from her precious bottle of champagne and her choice of music. This was fine by me.

I knew I was getting good material. Things were rolling along beautifully.

Romy Schneider

At about 3 o’clock in the morning, a change of scene was needed but of course at that late, or rather early, hour no drastic changes were possible. I went through Romy’s clothes, but nothing appealed to me until my eye caught sight of a very large chiffon silk shawl. Romy looked at me with her mischievous smiling eyes and nodded, “I know exactly what you want, Eva.” Without another word, she started to undress, ending up by only “wearing” this colourful piece of transparent material.

She began draping herself and playing with her shawl. She was enjoying every minute of this unplanned photo session which was building to a crescendo. Her joy and exuberance filled the room – even though every now and again brief moments of melancholy clouded over her radiant personality. While photographing her, I was very conscious of her inner turbulence (which, naturally, I would never intrude on) but her professionalism annihilated any sign of this state of mind.

By 5 o’clock in the morning, I was beginning to run out of film. Her gregarious humour was slowly turning into a more serious mood. The alcohol and the late hour were catching up with her, so I decided to stop the session: an unthinkable move on my part! I felt that Romy had reached the end of this jaunt, and it was time to come off the roller coaster.

I couldn’t sleep those few remaining sleepable hours. I was too worried and at the same time too excited by our extraordinary photo session. Worried about the technical outcome of the pictures – and how Romy would react to seeing herself in the cold light of day in those seductive poses that worked well under the influence of alcohol and music…

This wasn’t the end of my adventure with Romy. A few days later, I wanted to give her some black and white prints of our memorable night. She suggested I meet her and her dog on the banks of the Tiber. That warm sunny afternoon became the “finale” to an extraordinary moment.

Luckily, she was thrilled with the outcome of the pictures and discarded only a few shots. All in all, this turned out to be one of the most exceptional moments of my photographic career.

Vintage and modern editions are available from Eva Sereny’s archive. Contact online@iconicimages.net for more information. View all of Eva’s Romy photographs here.

Extract taken from ‘Behind her Lens‘, available signed from the Iconic Store.

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