Gigi Giannuzzi: Iconoclastic publisher celebrated for his books of photojournalism


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The Independent Online

The mercurial, infinitely lovable Gigi Giannuzzi was an iconoclastic publisher, the founder of Trolley Books, whose specialty was alternative truth, his personal religion. Many of Trolley's publications could be defined as photojournalism. In March 2005, Trolley Books, founded in only 2001 and many of whose publications were determinedly uncommercial, received a special commendation from the Kraszna-Krausz Book Awards for its outstanding contribution to photography book publishing.

Although a cash-strapped operation, Trolley was no stranger to publishing gongs. At the 2004 American Photography Awards, both Agent Orange by the Vietnam war photographer Philip Jones Griffiths – "Philip personified what Gigi was fighting for and wanted to publish," said Hannah Watson, his business partner and former girlfriend – and Open Wound: Chechnya 1993-2004 by Stanley Greene – "I want to show what the Russians are doing in Chechnya," said Giannuzzi – were selected among the 10 Best Photography Books of the Year. "If he believed in an issue or if he believed in a project, he would see it all the way through," Greene said. "We're never again going to see anyone of his light passing through." A Million Shillings – Escape from Somalia by Alixandra Fazzina (2010) was given the NANSEN Refugee Award, the first time this was won by a photographer or journalist. Several other books won similar tributes. But Trolley also produced its share of art books: Don't Be So, the first book of poetry by Paul Fryer, illustrated by Damien Hirst; Nick Waplington's 2008 Double Dactyl; HIM Book, 101 absurdist images of Gordon McHarg's waxwork of Charles Saatchi, "the one piece of art that Charles Saatchi can't buy." Hannah Watson said of McHarg's volume: "As a publisher Gigi was quite prepared to put out books that didn't make sense. But they were fantastic."

There were also editions that fell between the two, like Daniele Tamagni's outstanding Gentlemen of Bacongo, documenting the stylish dandies – sapeurs, as they are known – of the Congo's Brazzaville. "The importance of being elegant," run the tome's first words: this was indubitably the theme of the book's 2009 launch party, and almost a definition of Giannuzzi himself, in Shoreditch's Redchurch Street, a few hundred yards from where in 2003 he set up Trolley's headquarters, incorporating his own living-space and an art gallery. The gallery was used to promote images from Trolley publications, as well as tangentially related artwork, such as a giant lighting installation by Paul Fryer and shows by Boo Savile and Henry Hudson, among others.

He was impeccably well-connected, almost entirely through the force of his charismatic personality, and his sense of taste permeated everything with which he came into contact. Hilariously dramatic stories shadowed him: when one morning a tow-truck tried to remove his car, Giannuzzi leapt out of bed, and, stark naked, lay in the road to prevent this; he was banned for life from the Groucho club after being chased out of a toilet before wiping his unattired behind on the entrance door-frame ("they thought I was doing coke, but I had diarrhoea after being in India"); in Venice, rescuing a party of friends whose boat was drifting out to sea, he first circled them in his own vessel, laughing, "Immigrants: go home!"

Born in Rome, Luigi Giannuzzi was the eldest of three brothers and one sister; their father was a notary. The family moved to Orvieto in Umbria; Gigi attended a naval college in Venice before taking a first-class degree in economics: he completed his four-year course in three years, despite frequently having been out all night partying.

In 1986 he arrived in London, and from 1987 to 1991 he worked in banking. Not wishing to lose touch with his soul, he went into publishing. In South America he lived a peripatetic existence, selling foreign rights to art books. For a brief time he was tour manager for the band Big Audio Dynamite.

In 1997 Giannuzzi formed Westzone Publishing; his first book was Ten Years After: Naples 1986-1996, by the American photographer Nan Goldin. Always under financial constraints, Westzone folded at the turn of the century. In 2001, Giannuzzi set up Trolley, initially in Venice; the name followed from that year's Frankfurt Book Fair: unable to afford his own stand, Giannuzzi, wearing a red velvet suit, had pushed around a shopping trolley containing his prospective publications. "It was a homeless image, but also one of freedom," said Hannah Watson. "It also had those connotations of being off your trolley."

At the end of 2003 Trolley opened in Shoreditch's Redchurch Street, kicking off with an exhibition to boost his photographic books. But as Redchurch Street became increasingly chic, so rents increased. Accordingly, in October 2011 Trolley moved to Riding House Street in Fitzrovia. That year Giannuzzi had been in Mexico, where he had met Masumi Rioja, with whom he fell in love.

Last June Giannuzzi was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He was always adept at hustling funding, and this skill did not fail him. When news arose of his illness, the Situation Gigi art auction last September raised £230,000 for his treatment, with contributions from such artists as Damien Hirst, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Gavin Turk, and Sarah Lucas. But conventional and alternative treatments failed to stem the disease's rapid progress; and his efforts to marry Masumi were thwarted by the bureaucratic eccentricities of their respective countries.

Luigi Giannuzzi, publisher and gallery owner: born Rome 10 July 1963; partner to Masumi Rioja; died 24 December 2012.