Theory & Practice

Behind The Image: At The Piazza della Rotonda

Richard Kalvar on his intriguing shot that isn’t all it seems

Richard Kalvar

Richard Kalvar Piazza della Rotonda. Rome, Italy. 1980. © Richard Kalvar | Magnum Photos

“My pictures thrive on ambiguity and mystery,” says Richard Kalvar, when asked to tell the story of one of his best-loved images, an odd capture of two men in front of the fountain at the Pantheon in Rome. “When I tell people what was ‘really happening’ in a picture, they stop looking at it,” replies Richard Kalvar, who describes context as the “enemy”. Here, the Paris-based American photographer tells the story of what may – or may not – be going on in the image.

What is happening in this photograph?

A gargoyle, tightly squeezed between two dolphins, suddenly starts spitting cold water down the back of the neck of the unsuspecting young man in the center of the photograph. His surprise is unsurprising, but his companion is unaware of anything amiss.

Where and how was this image made?

In Rome, at the Piazza della Rotonda, with a camera.

What was happening outside the frame?

This scene takes place near the Italian Senate. A herd of elephants has just trampled a group of Senators to death.

If you hadn’t taken this shot, what would you have been doing instead at that precise moment?

Taking a picture of something else.

Tell us a secret about this image?

Some of the answers I gave to the previous questions are not 100% accurate.

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