On the occasion of the new Sarah Moon exhibit at the Fotografiska museum in New York, we decided to forego an ordinary review, since in our world there is no such thing as a bad Sarah Moon exhibit. Instead, we decided to treat you by releasing a hitherto print-only profile of Sarah Moon that our arts editor penned for Volume 2. Sarah Moon does not give many interviews, and so we thought this piece deserves a wider audience.
I’ve often envied those who photograph life. I avoid it. I start from nothing. I make up a story, which I leave untold. I imagine a situation, which doesn’t exist. I wipe out the space to invent another. I shift the light. I rend everything unreal. And then I try. I watch out for what I didn’t expect. I wait to see what I can’t remember. I undo what I put together. I hope for hazard. But more than anything, I long to be struck as I shoot. Sarah Moon Contacts.
On a clear, bright May morning, I shared a bench outside the Soho Grand hotel with the photographer Sarah Moon while she calmly smoked a cigarette. Together we took in West Broadway, quiet and devoid of people and traffic but for the occasional bicycle rolling by or taxi depositing a hotel guest. This was the second time I had met her. The first was the night before at the Aperture Foundation opening for Delpire & Co. that celebrated more than half a century of work by the legendary publisher Robert Delpire, to whom Moon is married. Sitting there, secretly enjoying the second-hand smoke trailing off her cigarette (I quit years ago), our talk shifted from the prior evening’s events to her schedule for the day and her own coinciding show, Now and Then, set to open that evening, uptown at the Howard Greenberg Gallery.
Later in the day, Moon and I shared a taxi from the hotel to her gallery, and in the cab our conversation turned to the opening remarks she was asked to make on her husband’s behalf at the Aperture event in Paris, where the couple lives and works:
“It’s not a tribute for me, it’s a tribute for Bob. But it’s difficult to do that, you know because… because it’s his place and I can’t take his place. So, I’m always afraid of not saying the…” she let the thought drop and looked out the taxi window. “To talk for me it’s OK. I hate it but I can. But, to talk to for somebody else, it’s difficult. Plus he gave me a letter, but… do you have that program Outlook? I hate machines you know. I hate. And we deal with machines all the time.”
It was the closest Moon ever came to anger or irritability in the hours I spent with her, but the incident provided a glimpse into her mind: her heightened awareness of one’s place within one’s immediate surroundings; her belief in the power of expression; an insistence on the importance of expressing things well and of getting them right; the privileging of the intimate and personal over the generic (he gave her a “letter,” not “prepared remarks,” not a “speech”) and underneath it all, the premise that the responsible thing is to speak, yes, but for oneself only. And, to be fair, she doesn’t really hate machines. Only when they don’t work.
She extinguished her cigarette, and we gathered our things off the bench and went into the hotel salon for coffee.
She was dressed in a three-quarter length navy pinstriped jacket, dark blue jeans, and a silk scarf wound about her head. She is petite. She is seventy-one years old. She is animated, and her eyes literally sparkle. Her speech has a musical quality that becomes more pronounced when her thoughts get going and the voice needs to keep up.
Seated on a plush sofa, a cup of hot coffee propped between both hands, she settled into a conversational mode and proceeded to speak of simple things and modest acts in clear, direct language that somehow elevated them. Though quotidian in origin, each subject became weighty, special, and monumental almost, as it filtered through her mind and voice, just like her photographs have a tendency to do. Everyday acts, at least the ones that merit her attention, become loaded, fraught with life, extraordinary. If you’ve ever seen a photograph by Moon of a woman taken from the back, seated or walking away, this hyper-specificity should be recognizable.
“A photo for me, a real photo, is that instant of grace that I nearly missed and that might never happen again,” she had once said.
There in the salon and later in the taxi, she spoke of books, poems, and writing by hand (“I must scribble to follow my thoughts”), of assistants and teachers (and the gift in finding good ones), of work (the artisanal variety), of dedication to craft, of walking, of getting lost, and of time, especially of time. Moon has that gift of being able to pick up a mundane topic, blow the dust off of it, and place it back down, now more special for having been filtered by her singular awareness, honed by a working method that as one commentator put it, “plans and stages her photographs meticulously, and then waits for the unexpected to happen.” Though thirty some years her junior, I felt old in her presence.
I must have let on as much because at one point she teased, “I represent memories of childhood. That’s why people like me.” But then continued, “Children don’t lose time because they don’t have responsibility. It’s something I think about often as I’ve gotten older.” She elaborated that as one gets older, one has less time to walk, to get lost, to not know where one is going or exactly what to expect. Her favorite haunt in New York City is Coney Island, early in the morning. “It has that feeling that the party is over.” The attraction and charm resides in its shabbiness and decrepitude and the ravages of time.
Time and the promise of possibility that lingers within it may in fact be Moon’s ultimate photographic subject. While her fame may rest in the popular mind with the seminal advertising and editorial campaigns she created on behalf of Cacharel, Comme des Garcons, Yohji Yamamoto, and Chanel, Pirelli, to name a few, and published in countless American, European, and Japanese fashion magazines, the ember of poetic truth smoldering in all those works that makes them memorable may be their wistfulness. Her work is repeatedly and understandably described as melancholy, elegiac, poetic, fugitive, and timeless. Yet, it may be more precise to chalk it up as timeful. The photographs are marvels achingly saturated with time and the awareness of its passing. These are photographs that bypass the intellect and make themselves felt in the gut, like a good song or a horror movie.
For me a good photo is one that cannot be repeated. I think of, in some of your photos, the hands of those young women and the way those hands relate to each other. “She caught it once” I say to myself while I look at them. “She couldn’t ever catch the same thing again.” Frank Horvat, interviewing Sarah Moon, Paris, November 1986.
Ilona Suschitzky echoed the sentiment in an interview included in Moon’s multivolume book 12345, “In all your work, every moment feels threatened by the changes that time brings. You make me feel as if the world might disappear, yet there is a contradiction… Isn’t the idea of taking a photograph a proof that the world is indeed there?”
“Do you know why the title is12345?” Moon asked. me “Five is my lucky number. Plus, I wanted it to have all the books and Mississippi One,” a feature length film Moon wrote, directed and shot in 1991. “May 5, 2012. A good day for an opening,” she smiled broadly.
“Mississippi One. The title came from counting Polaroids. I had an assistant who would count like that, waiting for the Polaroids.”
When I ask her what the differences are for her, if any, between photography and film, she markedly distinguished the two. “Film is where imagination meets reality. But a photograph is an echo: you imbue reality with your personality.”
“An elixir.” She pronounces the word in French. “It nearly defines what a photograph is. What else does it? Perfume, perhaps.” Elixir. A powder for drying wounds, etymologically. A quintessence. A refined essence or extract of a substance. A 125th of a second.
“The mixing of memory and desire,” she pipes up. “You know….” She looks at me. It’s on the tip of my tongue.. “Bananafish. Yes, that’s it. By Salinger. I’m sure of it.” (She was right. It would become my homework assignment to confirm that for her).
Her recollection of the details of the short story, “A Perfect Day For Bananafish,” was brilliant — not factually accurate — but spot on as to the critical emotional details and sense of menace in the story. “The guy, he’s a bit of a psycho, walking the beach. He can only have conversation with a child or only she can talk to him. There is a blindfold over the eyes. The mom is far away, on the phone… Beautiful.”
“Ah, Sharon Lipschutz,” said the young man. “How that name comes up. Mixing memory and desire.” He suddenly got to his feet. He looked at the ocean. “Sybil,” he said, “I’ll tell you what we’ll do. We’ll see if we can catch a bananafish.”
“A bananafish,” he said, and undid the belt of his robe. He took off the robe. His shoulders were white and narrow, and his trunks were royal blue. He folded the robe, first lengthwise, then in thirds. He unrolled the towel he had used over his eyes, spread it out on the sand, and then laid the folded robe on top of it. He bent over, picked up the float, and secured it under his right arm. Then, with his left hand, he took Sybil’s hand.
The two started to walk down to the ocean.
“I sought to make it a movie but,” she shrugs, “you know, I couldn’t get the rights.”
Before rejoining Moon to attend her opening I would also discover that that specific phrase, “mixing memory and desire,” is itself a quote. It comes from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
T.S Eliot would make an appearance in Now and Then too. Stenciled on a column in the middle of the gallery were these lines from Burnt Norton –
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which always present.
On the sofa, the conversation naturally turned to books and to reading. Moon was reading a book of Kafka’s aphorisms. “You need books like that when you travel. Because there’s no time. That, or letters, correspondence.”
“Fashion,” she posited — the only time that topic really came up between us — “is fiction.”
As soon as I take something out of its context I am already in a fiction. At the beginning, to make sense of what I was looking for, rather than a story, I used to create a situation. I don’t do that anymore; I feel I am always expecting a story that I don’t yet know. It is as if the instant I am wishing for and trying to provoke with all my strength will carry the story itself. When I go outside, it is more about an echo between the world and me that I am looking for; I remember Jean Gabin said in Quai des brumes, “When I see someone swimming, I see someone drowning.” Maybe that is the story of my photography. Sarah Moon in conversation with Ilona Suschitzky, 12345.
Aside from fashion, certain topics did not come up in our conversation. We did not discuss her childhood, or her work as a model, or her beginnings as a photographer. For an artist as caught up in stories and the fabric of time as Moon is, it was sufficient, more than enough really, to focus on topics at hand in the here and now. The undercurrent also seemed to be that such matters are irrelevant to approaching her work. How she photographs is the critical bit. The why not so much.
I have been taking almost the same picture for twenty years, a fashion picture. A dress a woman or rather, a woman a dress. Close-up or full-length. Sitting, standing, inside, outside, in the shade or in the light, summer or winter, no matter. I photograph: privilege; illusion; evanescence; unlikeness; and beauty. Then I seek for an emotion. It seems an even more hopeless quest…
So, I walk around the model. I look at her endlessly. Face. Profile. Back. Upside-down. Top to toe. I change the angles. I cheat the perspective. I falsify the trail. I don’t know any more. Nothing but emptiness around. As the model has only one place I’m looking for mine. I can’t find it. I want to be somewhere else. I keep on. I hang on to shapes. The curve of the neck. The fold of the dress. The gesture of the hand. The balance of the hips. The model moves slowly. She suggests. She tries to understand what I can’t explain. She tries to play a part I can’t follow. I hear myself saying, “No no do nothing.” So again she waits. She stares at me. She sees my panic. I feel I’m letting her down. I feel guilty. So I press a button. I say, “It’s great.” Yes, I pretend. Once. Twice. Thirty-six times. I hope and I begin again. Time goes by. Night falls. I lose confidence. I don’t want to be a photographer anymore. — Sarah Moon Contacts
That evening, observing Moon at her opening, standing amidst her admirers young and old, graciously accepting each and every fan holding books carried from home under his arm or pressed against her chest, each waiting patiently to have her sign, I spied a striking, young woman approach her. The girl bent down, and Moon embraced her neck with one arm, and planted solid kisses on her cheeks. I saw but could not hear her say, “Do you like it?” to which the girl nodded and walked away, out of the gallery, smiling. One of Moon’s models.
As our hour ran up in the morning and it was time for Moon to get uptown to attend meetings, she gestured to a wrapped copy of Volume 2 of this magazine that I had brought for her but which it had slipped my mind to give to her first thing. She took the magazine onto her lap, unwrapped the cellophane, and flicked through the pages. She stopped, of all the pages to stop at, at the one wherein Deborah Turbeville references Proust. The text that caught her attention read:
The greatest thing that I’ve ever read was in Swann’s Way,” said Turbeville. “There is this most hauntingly beautiful thing he writes about going into the Bois de Bologne and thinking that Madame de Guermantes will never walk here again. I mean I could cry right now thinking about that terrible feeling that something will never happen again, that you have it in your memory but are not being able to even come close to it. It’s a tragedy.”
Once we settled in the taxi, which crawled past Union Square, I asked Moon more about her working methods, and she told me about her assistants and, surprisingly, her adoption of certain technologies. “I have another assistant that works with my gallery who’s adorable. Who’s a photographer, a young photographer who’s German, and he helps me with design. And then I have a young guy who helps me and taught me Photoshop. So I love that. Photoshop is like my lab. I don’t do big changes, but I can control for color, you know, that kind of thing. And I’m really interested in that. And I knew a bit about that because when I do my film I do Final Cut Pro , which is in a way a big machine, but at least it’s got all the corrections. So between him and what I learn from him and what he helps me do and everything, I can work with Photoshop. So I love it. And it’s fun. And then for my photos I have an assistant that knows my way of working and my team is the same, you know. Those people I work with for photos…” She paused, then went on, “For 15 years I worked, when I began, with a lovely man, with Mike [Youel] in America, but, hey, he died. And then I thought I’ll never go into fashion anymore because I learned from him a lot technically. He was never doing things I didn’t… I didn’t work with flash or things like that because I mean, I trusted him completely, but I said I have to see what I see. So, we never did that. But he helped me when technique was very difficult for me because you know… it was not like now, taking a reading was something. In the balance, yeah, I learned really. So when he stopped that’s when I began working for myself. Because I said I wasn’t going to do any more… he was my school and my assistant.”
When you began working, did you have any idea of how your work might evolve? Not in the least. I was working on assignments and I was trying to do my best to respond to the expectations of the clients without ever thinking I could use it to express myself. It took me 15 years and Mike’s death to have the need. After that, it was nothing but one step in front of the other, day by day with time changing me. – Sarah Moon in conversation with Ilona Suschitzky, 12345.
“It’s important to find teachers in life, isn’t it?” I said.
“It’s beautiful.” She nodded. “It’s beautiful. You’re so grateful. You know? I don’t mean….you can only learn by practicing, so you have to do it yourself. But with him, its true, I thought I couldn’t. I did. But I… I didn’t want to do it anymore. But I did. So it’s good. I did and it made me do work for myself because I terribly needed to see what I saw when I was alone. Either I would have felt that I wasn’t there or, you know, part of me had gone. But finally, I did, and it was good because it allowed me to do something else in fashion because when he was there, we were working — it was the 70s and he died in 85 — so, we were doing assignments all the time. I was only doing applied work. I didn’t even think of, I mean, photographing friends or sometimes I did photos for me but very rarely. You know, I was not a photographer for me. I was working for the work. It was like an artisan., you know. I was doing my job. I mean, my job was fulfilling and I was doing it as well as I could. I didn’t know what I would want to photograph except beauty and what I knew. But when he left, without question, that’s when I began working with the Polaroid.”
Can you remember the moment when you realized that the technique you had found had become your own language? Black and white Polaroid made me understand how infinite the grey scale is. The frailty of the film suited my purpose, plus the fact that I discovered it when I began working for myself, made it mine. In color, it’s different, there is a lot more for me to discover and to eliminate. It’s as if I have to reduce the choices the palette and technology give, to get closer. — Sarah Moon in conversation with Ilona Suschitzky, 12345.
“Because I needed to see if I wasn’t going wrong, technically. And when I discovered the black and white Polaroid negative I couldn’t get out of it. They’re so beautiful. Because it has an incredible range. You can photograph inside and outside and you still have something. It’s, you know, the most beautiful film that exists. I mean everybody worked with it. It is very very very sensitive. Very very sensitive.”
“I’ll tell you,” she gestured out the window to the storefronts and entryways of Park Avenue South, “you could photograph bright like there… not from bright light to dark but, yeah, you could, nearly. And anyway it was beautiful film. Technically, it was really beautiful. And the lab I work with, the same printer, always, and he prints much better than me,” I raised an eyebrow. “Well, because you need time. He’s incredible, you’ll see the prints. He was 16 when he began… Labo… Le Beau… we called him. Co-labo-rator.” She beamed. “When I did the first Polaroid, I took them to him and when I saw what he did, I said…” She waved her hand.
“In a way I have nothing against digital. It’s just that it’s a lot of work to make it yours. But you can, you know. You can. I’ve done it. I can do what you want, but it takes a lot of time and you have to extrapolate from what you see. But with Polaroid, too, it’s not what you see. It’s just, you see a bit of the cropping because it’s not reflex. So it allows you to correct. But if you do something… because sometimes you’re not in the center, or you leave too much , err on one side. So you can control. I work on a tripod. Not always. I did not take it today. I thought I won’t have time. Tomorrow maybe…” She stopped to think that over. “Tomorrow I won’t have time either. Saturday. Saturday, I’m just going to Coney Island. I’m just going to go… I do photos with my iPhone. Souvenirs. I love the iPhone.”
I think my mouth fell open.
“I love the iPhone,” she repeated. “I do very simple shots. I can do ‘Polaroid’ with that. I’m going to do a little film for all the people to bring back. I do souvenirs. So, I do portraits. I print just like this,” she gestured at the screen of her iPhone, indicating it’s size, “and it’s OK. You can’t go bigger than that without pixels. It’s OK for souvenirs. They’re 4×3 about. So it’s as big as a Polaroid. But I’m always scared of the battery. I hope I took my charger…”
And that precipitated a search through her bag.
“I feel like a student,” she quipped while she rummaged in her bag, “leaving and having my clothes with me for tonight.” Her schedule was so packed for the day that she feared she wouldn’t be able to make it to Soho to change and back again to the gallery in time for the opening.
Charger thankfully located, I asked her if she was particular about the hanging and installation of her shows. I almost didn’t even finish the question before she answered. “It’s all designed.” Her gallerist had at first objected to how tightly she wanted to hang the photographs, “… but he was very sweet. I said listen, let me do it because I’m your guest and you represent me and I’m the oldest one.” Up against Moon’s intellect, tenacity, and charm, my sense was that the gallerist did not stand much chance. “He thinks that for commercial reasons that if people see too many, pictures they just pass through. I said you know, so what? If people are really interested in a picture, they’ll see it in a wherever, they’ll see it in a garbage pail. I have to be myself. Either what’s the point?”
“I say when you put two images together, you make a third one. You know? That’s it. And me… it’s very cinematographic the way I layout, because for me, the women have found their place now. After a while, in my landscapes or in my places they’ve found their place. If I see them… only the fashion, something’s missing.”
These days, Moon prefers black and white. “Black and white has meaning. Black and white is when you close your eyes really. It gives a distance to reality. I see better. I see more. If I play with colors I play with colors, and sometimes the colors, as I say, the color imposes itself. You know, I wouldn’t think of doing a yellow dress in black and white. Because yellow is part of the story. It speaks because of that yellow. You can’t escape that. But in reality I prefer black and white. My films are mostly in black and white. It’s really a question of how you receive it. You know? Usually, I like black and white because its more,” she thought for a second, “mine.”
“I capture the work better in black and white. Because of that notion of instant life and death. You know? Something that will never come back. I liked what she [Turbeville] said about Proust. That kind of… you’ll never… that it will never be exactly like that again. There is always loss. In everything. I mean Henri Cartier-Bresson said that a photograph is death but you know it’s true. It’s the death of an instant. But also between zero and one there is an infinity.”
The last I saw of her was at the opening, just long enough to squeeze through the crowd, and hand her a folder containing copies of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and “The Waste Land,” and to say thank you, and to make way for her fans and collectors.
Upon her return to Paris she would be busy preparing to shoot a new film scheduled to be wrap in October. The photographs that accompany this story were selected from her show Now and Then, but for “Le Jardin du Luxemburg, 1985.”
I see a story. It’s sure. There, off frame. I don’t need to invent anymore. And even if I don’t know yet exactly what it’s about there is a before and an after. The instant is there. It’s all I need. And then it’s so simple to photograph. These moments are rare. They come when not expected. Often during dead time when she’s getting ready and I wander around or scout and when it’s no longer important and suddenly something twinkles in my eye as I’m passing by so I shoot just to see what I see. With these there’s lot of a waste and no contact… Never more than what’s left in the camera… I throw a lot away…. It’s the instant snapshots with all their haphazard joy that this word means for me. Me, who spent so many hours for one second. — Sarah Moon Contacts.
All images courtesy of Fotografiska.