Georgia O’Keeffe lived as she painted, a complex expression of modernism itself.Her sartorial theory was meaningful but strikingly simple, her homes and habits pure as paint, her oeuvre as inspiring to interior designers and fashion followers as it was, and ever will be, to painters and sculptors.


Renowned Melbourne photographer Robyn Lea was so moved by the late artist’s extraordinary legacy she flew to her longtime spiritual home, New Mexico, to record an evocative gallery of its baked and speckled landscapes, earthy adobe architecture, and even food (including a ripping cache of long-lost original recipes) typical of that which Miss O’Keeffe grew and prepared and shared at her table.


Robyn’s book, Dinner With Georgia O’Keeffe; Recipes, Art & Landscape, published by Assouline (New York), is the deliciously thrilling result of that deep dive into the life of a legend. Next week she will introduce it during a tribute to the artist’s remarkable life and work at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Sante Fe, Dr. Carolyn Kastner will join speakers Robyn and Yours Truly  for An Evening with Georgia O’Keeffe: Art, Food, Fashion and the Life of an Icon. Information is clickable here, and in the meantime, please enjoy this little gem from the Voxvault, written around the launch of Robyn Lea’s Milan – Discovering Food Fashion and Family, one of many lush works in her marvellous – and ever expanding – oeuvre as one of our most celebrated art photographers…


Words: Janice Breen Burns Photographs: Robyn Lea

Robyn Lea is proof love’s most passionate, enduring affairs can begin slowly or badly. Today she is madly in love with Milan but a couple of decades ago her first plunge into the Italian city was icecold. Liking it was difficult, loving almost unthinkable.

“Excruciating,” the New York based Australian photographer recalls now of that first lonely year. “The Milanese are very private and I didn’t know anyone…” Today we are at Andiamo, one of a dozen crowded, elbow to elbow cafes down a fingerling laneway deep inside Milan’s (official) sister city, Melbourne. The Italian coffee we’re drinking is so good, so Milanese you could say, it’s fuelling nostalgia for Italy in both of us.

“That first year was such hard work,” Ms Lea says, shaking pale, fashionably tousled hair. The mother of two is disarmingly youthful, looks half her age from some angles, and is an easy, talkative companion. I can imagine how quickly she might relax her photographic subjects. “I was only 18 when I first went to Milan,” she continues “I had to learn the language, I had no friends….”

Robyn Lea at work in Milan

Of course, she made them, or we wouldn’t be sitting here, poring over one of the most evocative books I have ever opened; so many extraordinary, beautiful friends. Fashion designers, editors, artists, models, dancers, doyennes and doyens. Ms Lea also probed the city with her camera lense and, as she did so, love bloomed, loneliness evaporated.

Her book  Milan – Discovering food, fashion and family in a private city, is a rich and lovely photographic record of that 23 year affair, still as impassioned and poetic now as its awakening after a year of loneliness. “So many people tell me when they go to Italy, they don’t go to Milan,” she says, “It’s either Rome, or it’s Venice. They say Milan’s an industrial city, and it is, but I’ve seen so much that’s hidden, so much that’s extraordianary….”

Gianfranco Ferre gown shot in Milan with Ann Shoebridge hat. Robyn Lea.

Ms Lea’s Milanese affair can be traced back to Australian ex-patriot photographer Jacqueline James. “She had moved to Milan (she’s since moved to the US) and after I heard about her from a friend at school I pestered her about my photography from when I was 15 or 16. I used to drive everyone mad, poor woman!” Much later, Ms Lea’s skillful “pestering” would score introductions to some of Milan’s loftiest creative aristocrats; designer Antonio Marras, heir and artist Barnada Fornasetti and Carla Sozzani, owner of fashion mecca 10 Corso Como among them, and through its most closely guarded portals including the legendary La Scala opera.

Carla Sozzani, founder of world famous 10 Corso Como fashion mecca and sister of Vogue Italia editor-in-chief Franca Sozzini, photographed in her private office.  Robyn Lea.

But for now, the confident teen was simply besotted by the qualities in her heroine’s work, qualities she didn’t know at the time, would one day deeply infuse her own. “I loved how emotionally driven her images were, how incredibly sensitive and moving I found her portrait work. So powerful! There was nothing between her and the subject. I thought; “I’ve got to go and work for this woman…” Three years and dozens of letters later, Ms. James surprised Ms Lea, 18 by then and a year into her RMIT degree, with an invitation to sort her life, pack her bags and fly to Milan.

Legendary curator and "matriarch" of contemporary Italian design Rossana Orlandi. Robyn Lea.

After that first prophetic year, Ms Lea criss-crossed the globe a dozen times, finished her degree in Melbourne, shot choreographers and dancers for a series of exhibitions in “one crazy year” as a diplomat’s partner in Zimbabwe, but returned like a homing bird to Milan, working as a fashion photographer but also, curious and curiouser, poking her cameras more brazenly into the city’s hidden parts.
“I’m moved by ideas and people, artwork, design and beautiful fashion though, I’m more interested in the fabrics and shapes and the mood that’s created through a garment than what’s on the catwalk now, what’s new today.” It shows in her shots. An extravagantly ruffled organza collar and thickly pleated silk gown, for example, borrowed from Melbourne friends J.C. Lloyd-Southwell d’Anvers and Dean Hewitt of vintage archive and couture salon Madam Virtue & Co. and shot in Milan (below), is a frank study of silk swirls and ridges, delicate as the broken edge of an oyster shell. Another gown, a long, soft brushstroke of black lace by Gianfranco Ferre, is shot simply against the splendid emptiness and distant grandeur of Milan’s elaborate architecture.

Milano silk couture dress by JC Lloyd-Southwell d'Anvers and Dean Hewitt, inspired by Milan and photographed in the city by Robyn Lea.

“I’m stimulated in historic environments, that bit of a baroque aura,” Ms Lea says. “Milan has a lot of palaces and no-one really knows they’re there. Some have windows on both sides – very tall windows – so the light filtering in is so beautiful there’s no need for anything else. I never had to use lights for any of those (fashion and interior) shoots, it was all natural.”
Soft Italian light and Ms Lea’s unforced charm, blended into those pestering skills mentioned earlier, lead to some remarkable projects in 20 years. Milan’s “poet of fashion”, the arrestingly handsome Antonio Marras, for example, she describes as “like shooting a dancer; he got this chair and kind of danced around it, did something so different in every shot I didn’t have to pull anything out, it was all – just there!”

Poet of fashion, the heart-stoppingly handsome Antonio Marras, "was like shooting a dancer..." Robyn. Lea.

Heir and creative director of the Fornasetti design empire, Barnaba Fornasetti, was also object of Ms Lea’s obsession and, after a call to his office and subsequent appraisal of her creative credentials, another willing portrait subject for her lense. “I was invited to his home. He’s a very thoughtful, artistic man and the way he speaks is so poetic. After the portrait, he said “Shoot anywhere you like” and gave me carte blanche. I had the most extraordinary day.”
Ms Lea moved through Mr. Fornasetti’s house and garden, mesmerised and excited most by evidence of his late father and founder of the empire, sculptor and painter Piero.  “I loved his father’s archives; he was an obsessive collector of information and ideas, and preserved them beautifully..” Her photograph of carefully labelled and banked files and drawers is elegant testament to the creative mathmatics behind much modern beauty and design . “I’m always looking at ways to photograph that,” she says musingly “The ways people work, their creative processes…”
In truth, she is always looking at ways to photograph the clothes, food, dance, art, architecture and even the fleeting moments of tenderness in our human lives that only a patient and intuitive photographer can capture. These days, Ms Lea lives with her husband and children in New York but returns often to Milan to shoot, for instance, recent campaigns for Pieroni, Antonio Berardi, and the Gianfranco Ferre Foundation.  Her book is a rare and absorbing album of her ongoing, passionate affair.