Haunting, mysterious, unknowable and blurred fairy tales by master of photography Sarah Moon and a conversation about her latest simultaneous exhibitions at the Fondazione Sozzani and at the Armani/Silos in Milan. Interview by Angelica Moschin.
Following the artist’s career over a twenty-three year period – from 1995 to 2018 – the show “Sarah Moon, Time at Work” at Fondazione Sozzani will feature a thorough selection of ninety photographs displayed alongside historical film works such as “There’s Something About Lillian” (2002) and her short “Contacts” (1995). Although Sarah Moon started out as an haute couture model, she realized very quickly that she wanted to move to the other side of the lens – a place she would find way more appealing– and embarked on a personal downward journey towards the quintessence of beauty and the innermost nature of time.
Her photographs are haunting, mysterious, unknowable and blurred fairy tales where form, tonality and beauty are finely laced with an improvisational and almost tactile intensity. Oscillating between visible and invisible, reality and fiction, they evoke haunting dream-like versions of reality that meld matter and spirit with such an alchemic dexterity that cannot be said to belong to this world.
Held in delicate tension and balance – one that is so fragile that could be disturbed at any given point– vaguely eldritch silhouettes of models, either sitting or standing, caught in the shade or in the light, swarm about the space that barely contain them, dipping in an out of sight yet keeping our gaze in ecstatic abeyance.
Looking at her work can be a meditational experience during which one suddenly becomes aware of a profound pictorial and spatial intelligence in the adjacencies of color and form – a spontaneous intuition that not only exists prior to any shot that will be fortunate enough to be consigned to history but also marks the coming to light of inchoate words in the poet’s hand. […] I click and click and click and so on…[…] she whispers, almost out of breath, in “Contacts”. Her work appears so closely tied to the written word and the way poems have always tried, since ancient times, to compensate for time privations and elisions that one can’t help but pausing to carefully scrutinize the connection. A myriad hints will follow shortly after to open our eyes on how the most diverse arts truly coexist, blend together – every now and then slipping into areas of disappearance and making it more difficult for us to disambiguate – and eventually, one day, burst forth in terrific synthesis.
By compulsively skirting around a memory, click after click, word after word, loss after loss, an entire spectrum of repetitions and little variations on the same theme are condensed in quasi-instantaneous views of realities that unfold beautifully before our eyes. Far from coming down to a mechanical modus operandi, repetition works here as a powerful trigger for activating a process of “vitalization” by which all those soft and eerie creatures inscribed within the frame become progressively more alive, more animated and blithely more eager to retake their positions onto the stage and restart their fêtes galantes after a pause lasted centuries.
Being incredibly suggestive of old photographic techniques for manipulating the surface, her works could be seen as compelling late examples of “Pictorialism” – a style that held sway through much of the later 19th and early 20th centuries and championed photography as a medium as creatively expressive and artistic as that of painting. Following the thread of a long-standing debate around the artistic status of this medium, she seems to be pulled back into the cycle of history, to its beginnings, its dawning, when mortals still indulged in fantasies of plenitude with the gods and a language of mysterious and alluring correspondances was common among them.
In your quest for beauty and emotion, you often questioned the status quo of reality by mystifying it. In this sense, the reconstitution of a memory as pure fiction might stand for a way to mend the gaps and make a conscious rejoinder to what is always left adrift in the moment. Some say that memory is nothing but a figment of our troubled imagination: anytime we are trying to remember something, we are somehow creating it anew. Do you agree?
I don’t know if I mystify reality, but I know I drawn the fish… I erase what situates it by making it nowhere or everywhere, timeless they say.
It is true I recognize at the same time as I discover whatever I photograph. It is probably either forgotten or imaginary memories which find an echo in reality.
“Time at work”. The title of the exhibition on view at Galleria Sozzani is self-explanatory. Since very ancient times, photography has always spelled the fatigue of men struggling against time and its erasures. Quite paradoxically and contrary to its commonly known purpose, the act of taking photographs is something that works according to a loss, thrives on that loss and eventually yields under the weight of time. With film works such as “There’s Something About Lillian (2002) and “Contacts” (1995) – also on display – you passed from the ostinato rigore of photography to the lush pleasures of the moving imagine. Were you searching for a safer harbor for your memories?
I don’t think about it that way. It seems to me that my photos have always been images from a film I didn’t do (this is the story I tell in Contacts). Of course in films I have more elements to tell the story, with a beginning and an end. In the portrait of Lilian Bassman, even though I did the film, she did it first! And I tried to be as close to her as I could.
I found a literary quality to your work, as if your furious clicks on the camera in the attempt to catch the right moment could be heard – and read – as words that desperately edge what has been lost with what can be contrived. Confabulatory in the senses of the conversational and the conjured up, with a Proustian bent, your visual “verbosity” tries to compensate for lost time by creating a continuous flow of sensory perceptions and many-voiced echoes that involves duration. Do you recognize a connection between written language and photography?
Thank you. In my films there are words, in my photos – that are silent – I hope one can read between the lines, can see what is not visible.
It seems that much of your work pivots on fear. Fear of missing an instant of grace that won’t happen again in the same way, fear that what you have so eagerly longed for would eventually go lost in a flux. How did you manage to incorporate all this in your work and turn it into a powerful tool for yourself? Do you think that, by dint of repetition, this fear can be gradually transformed into a calm confidence?
Fear is fear, and never goes.
After all that time, there is no outlet, the quest is the same, especially in the work, where, as you say, it crystallises on whatever you see, whatever you feel, mainly on the precipitation of time.
I don’t think I turned it into a tool, it is too unconscious when it happens, it is unpredictable when that fear escapes in my photographs.