Robyn spent the first years of her life on the family farm, under the limitless skies of the western plains of Victoria, Australia. Life was predictable and while Robyn loved being in nature, some of her earliest memories were of longing to experience somewhere foreign, something unfamiliar.
Robyn always knew she would work in a creative field. As a teenager, her imagination was fuelled by stories of women travellers and artists - and on weekends - Robyn would organize amateur fashion shoots inspired by Italian Vogue with friends or her sisters in her backyard or ‘on location’ in some grassy paddock behind the house.
Robyn often spoke about how much she wanted to be a photographer, and eventually a friend mentioned how his cousin, Jacqueline James, was a well-known photographer working in Milan. Longing to become her assistant, Robyn began a relentless letter campaign to Jacqueline, and her first reply was one of the most exciting letters Robyn had ever received.
In 1989, Robyn entered Trinity College at Melbourne University and began studying photography at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). During the year, she spent time meeting influential Australian photographers, like John Gollings and Rennie Ellis - aspiring one day to join their ranks - while continuing her correspondence with Jacqueline. One day, a blue airmail letter with Italian stamps arrived in Jacqueline’s characteristic hand¬writing containing the words Robyn had so wished to read – an offer to work as her full-time assistant in Milan.
Robyn’s ideas of what Milan would be like were based on daydreams and romantic imaginings. She was certain that just being there would trigger her Pygmalion reinvention from country girl to cultured lady – that Milan would welcome her and that she would be embraced by the warm-hearted 'mammas' she had seen in movies. Her bubble could not have burst more spectacularly. Having left a hot Melbourne summer, she arrived in Milan by bus from Genoa - weaving through the grey and grisly outskirts of town, which was cloaked in a thick fog. All Robyn could see were austere, monotone buildings, mimicking the same gloom in the sky. “A sinking feeling replaced my initial excitement,” she recalls.
Robyn commenced work with Jacqueline James, who was energetic and warm and lived for a month with Jacqueline and William, her American husband. Jacqueline shared her studio with two other photographers in a white, industrial loft-style space near the bustling, creative Navigli area (Canal district). The studio shared a courtyard with the Milan design studio of Costume National.
In those first few weeks, Robyn’s daily routine transformed into one that was decidedly Italian. She often went with Jacqueline and William for breakfast 'al bar' to the coffee shop underneath their apartment to order the classic brioche and cappuccino. After work, she would accompany Jacqueline to shop for the evening meal at the local fruit and vegetable store and discovered rucola and radicchio for the first time, as well as fresh basil and other herbs she had only ever seen dried in Australia. She was introduced to extra virgin olive oil, bresaola, prosciutto, polenta and an array of specialties from Lombardy. As a result, she - like the Italians - became passionate about cuisine.
Yet, despite having a job and finding her own place to live, Milan’s heart remained hidden from Robyn for many, many months. She desperately wanted to feel part of the city but progress was slow and resulted in a deep sense of loneliness. Though, one by one, Robyn discovered some of the best studios, agencies and photography labs in town. She became privy to snippets of information; whisperings about vast and magnificent internal courtyard gardens, palace ballrooms covered in paintings by Tiepolo and Michelangelo, and hidden fashion showrooms where gowns by Ferré, Ferretti and Ferragamo were regularly showcased. “The more stories I heard, the more I was driven to unlock the hidden secrets of the city for myself. Slowly I came to understand the extent of the astonishing talent in Milan, and I began to document these people, places and culinary traditions with my camera”, she said.
It was on a trip with Jacqueline and her husband to Valle d’Aosta that Robyn first acknowledged how far she had come. That weekend, she was invited to join the locals in their special ‘friendship’ ritual, known as the ‘Grolla dell’Amicizia’ – which involves sharing warm drink of coffee mixed with grappa, sugar and lemon rind. Robyn realized that she was able to speak in their language, understood many of their culinary traditions, and was finally welcomed into their homes. All the loneliness and hard work had paid off. Italy had ceased to feel foreign and she finally felt that famously warm embrace of Italian life that she had always dreamed of. Not long after, Robyn returned to Melbourne to complete her degree.
Years later, Robyn received an offer from friend, and budding photographer, Rita Cigolini, to join the studio she shared with two other young photographers in Milan. Beyond thrilled, Robyn returned to Italy and so began an industrious phase that saw her work to become a commercial photographer in the city. With established contacts, friends, and a feel for the city, it was markedly easier for Robyn in Milan the second time around.
Being part of Rita's studio gave Robyn a community; a real sense of place and her work flourished. Her time was dedicated to photographing models’ portfolios and collaborating with contacts and fellow aspiring creatives she had met previously in Milan. But she missed the dialogue and influence of artistic mentors on the other side of the world. Keen for a mentor in Milan, she yearned for somebody who could guide her creatively; someone who could balance the opinions and commercial interests of the models’ agents and offer a broader, more artistic perspective. By sheer luck, she found him.
On one of Robyn’s usual bus trips delivering prints, she watched an old man board. Robyn offered him her seat and he replied, that at ninety-three years of age, he had earned the right to accept the offer - even if it came from a young woman. He had dried flecks of paint on his pants and Robyn asked whether he was an artist. Introducing himself as a painter, he explained that his studio was not far from hers and invited her to visit him whenever she liked. At the time, Robyn was completely unaware that she had met Gabriele Mucchi; a highly respected artist, industrial designer, writer, translator, and influential Milanese figure.
Born in 1899 to Contessa Tracagni and her husband Anton Maria Mucchi, Gabriele had grown up in his father’s studio. Fondly remembering his father’s friendship with Auguste Rodin, he described Rodin’s visits to their home while he was a boy, recalling his huge shoulders, long, black coat, flowing scarf and powerful hands. Robyn’s chance meeting with him bore a great friendship that spanned many years and provided Robyn with the student–mentor relationship she had been craving. When speaking with Mucchi, all her art history books came alive. Mucchi had lived in Germany in the 1920s and knew artists of the Bauhaus before the Nazis shut it down. While living in Paris with his young wife Genni during the 1930s, he had met Leger, De Chirico and Picasso and later worked with various Italian Realists and Futurists.
He was passionate, piercingly direct and often confronting, but all the while supportive, warm and encouraging. Robyn continued correspondence with Mucchi after returning to Australia and treasured receiving his letters until a few months before his death in 2002.
Robyn’s work as a photographer in Milan prepared her well for an exciting career that has since seen her sensitive and evocative images appear in magazines and large international advertising campaigns. Commissions have included photographing the Frankfurt Ballet in Germany, the Kirov Opera in St Petersburg and actor Willem Dafoe on the rooftop of his New York studio among many others.
The life-changing arrivals of their two children Isabella and Wilfred, caused Robyn to reflect on earlier challenges and upheavals and inspired her to create her book, Milan: Discovering Food, Friends and Family in a Private City. “Like buried treasure I felt I had uncovered some of the most beautiful and hidden aspects of this city”, she said. And now she wants to share these discoveries with you.
Credits for images from the book 'Milan - Discovering food, fashion and family in a private city’ by Robyn Lea. Design by ERD © Robyn Lea 2013.