Mario Sorrenti’s Unseen Kate Moss Photos: Fashion’s Answer to “A Star Is Born”

We spoke to Mario Sorrenti about “Kate,” a 120-page peek inside fashion‘s favorite tale of young love on the brink of fame.

by Gabriella Karefa-Johnson
Oct 5 2018, 5:42pm

On the opening weekend of Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s film A Star Is Born, I find myself focusing on another legendary couple: photographer Mario Sorrenti and supermodel Kate Moss, who met when he first photographed her in the early ’90s and then dated for two years. And I’m struggling to understand why a film hasn’t been made about them.

Their story is the kind one could barely dream up: two kids, madly in love, catapulted into stardom by means of either extraordinary luck or some sort of cosmic intervention. Perhaps this is why perusing through Sorrenti’s newest Phaidon-published book, Kate—a collection of incredibly intimate and previously unseen photographs of ’90s supermodel Kate Moss—is such a pleasing experience. Taken in the early ’90s before a capital “THE” preceded both the subject and photographer’s names, these images show an honest portrayal of youthful love in its entire quiet splendor. The book is paced like a dreamy foray into these young creative minds. It’s voyeuristic but honest; cinematic; and as earnest as it is artful. One can’t help but develop an obsession with its subject and her photographer. The visual storytelling is just too seductive. (It’s worth noting that these photographs, taken between 1991 and 1993, landed both Sorrenti and Kate the campaign for the Calvin Klein’s fragrance Obsession.)

While we may have to wait for a blockbuster adaptation, this source material more than satisfies our appetites. And as luck would have it, the Dallas Contemporary has announced that their April 2019 exhibition of Sorrenti’s photographs will feature a series of videos taken during the couple’s two-year courtship.

Earlier this fall, Garage caught up with Sorrenti to get to the heart of one of his most personal projects to date.

Photo by Mario Sorrenti from 'Kate' (Phaidon)

Gabriella Karefa-Johnson: I can’t get Kate out of my head. Who is this woman in these pictures? I want to know what she was like, what her style was like, what she smelled like, what was she into. Help me understand.

Mario Sorrenti: It was even hard for me to remember all of these pictures clearly. Kate was really funny, really cute, beautiful, sweet, kind of shy, but also very...She just loved to go out, and loved to have fun, and she had a really personal, cool, simple style. We'd go to the Salvation Army and try and find cool clothes. It was all about a bargain. How cheap could you find the cool little dress, you know what I mean? It was all about secondhand clothes.

GKJ: There is a cinematic quality to a lot of these images—I think it’s the connection we can sense in Kate’s gaze, but I cant help but hear a ’90s soundtrack in my head. What kind of music were you guys listening to at this time?

MS: I think we were listening to Nirvana a little bit, but it was more like...the Pet Shop Boys.

GKJ: Interesting. I was hearing Pearl Jam…

MS: No, you know what, it wasn’t—it didn’t get really grungy until a little bit later in the ’90s for us. ’Cause we were into a lot of hip-hop, like early hip-hop, and then we were listening to a lot of European, not Kraftwerk, but Eurasia, and all that cool club stuff from the late ’80s, early ’90s.

GKJ: The reason why I asked was because we all know you as Mario Sorrenti the photographer and culture creator, the established artist, but these photos are by Mario Sorrenti, the kid. The work in this book just feels like a very honest portrayal of what it is to be a young person with a camera and an eye.

MS: We were basically like two kids. We were just into each other, and going out, and into our friends. Modeling was a way to make money. And somebody had scouted Kate on the street, and she was modeling, but it wasn’t like she was a model, or she even really gave a shit about modeling. I wasn’t taking pictures back then—back then I was learning how to take pictures. That was really, really early on. Those pictures were right at the beginning; some of those pictures were even before we started working. They were all taken over a span of three years, around the time when a lot happened. It went from zero to a hundred in that span.

GKJ: So you were figuring out how to make ends meet and do what you loved? Sounds about right.

MS: I had no idea how I was going to become a photographer. But I was just taking pictures and being very passionate about photography. I loved it and I wanted to be an artist. I came out of school and ended up falling into modeling. I was trying to make a little bit of money modeling—barely nothing, maybe 100, 200 dollars a month max, you know what I mean? That’s how I met Kate, on a job.

GKJ: And that was it!

MS: I was photographing her all the time. All of a sudden Kate gets this break, and she starts shooting Dior, and she gets this big job. We’re like, “Oh my god, can you believe it? Kate just did something for Harper’s Bazaar in Dior, this is kind of incredible, blah blah…” Then I get my first call to do a photoshoot for The Face. These little things happen. The next thing you know, it’s like snowball effect. I’m shooting for Harper’s Bazaar, and getting contracts and Calvin Klein’s asking me to shoot stuff.

GKJ: When you’re young, everything feels so huge so fast—it feels like life happens all at once!

MS: She did that campaign with Marky Mark, and all of a sudden she’s huge, all over—massive! And you have to imagine, this is a world, also, before social media, before the internet, before cell phones. This is basically the moon. We would sit at home, we would call our agents on a rotary phone. But now we’re just kids, and everywhere we go, people are taking pictures of us. So our world—even though we’re being catapulted into this world of fashion and working—that world was still relatively insulated and small. But when Kate all of a sudden started blowing up on these huge billboards everywhere, we’re like, “Whoa…what’s going on?” It was really insane.

GKJ: Did that onset of fame at the very start of your career change your relationship to photography?

MS: Yeah, it did change a lot for me. Because, basically, I went from doing just pictures—to shooting for magazines, and I have the hair and makeup and styling and everything. So it was very clear, the difference between photography and the pictures that I was doing for myself, and fashion pictures. So at that point, I’m being pulled into two places. Part of me, I wanna be an artist; the other part of me, I’m getting pulled into the commercial world of fashion photography. I don’t wanna be a fashion photographer, I wanna be an artist. But I’m getting offered all of these great jobs, and I’m making money, and it’s opportunity. And I wanna be with Kate, so I wanna shoot Kate all the time.

GKJ: It’s a rather existential dilemma to confront in your twenties…

MS: I’m trying to figure out, who am I and what is my world going to be, between art and fashion? That was, I think, the big struggle for me for many years. Who am I? Am I an artist, am I a fashion photographer? I wanna be an artist, I don’t wanna be a fashion photographer. And it wasn’t until the late ’90s that I just came to terms with it all. And I was like, you know what, I’ll find my own world that exists between fashion and art. And I’ll just do whatever I want to do and try and make a life out of it, and try and enjoy it.

GKJ: In the case of you and Kate, it’s pretty hard to avoid the “artist-muse” label when looking at the work you two made together. Do you resent that?

MS: It’s something that I acknowledge, and I know that it exists. And I totally agree with it because the process is not like, “Oh, I want you to be my muse.” It’s not like that. You meet somebody that you, through a series of events, begin to collaborate with, and you build a relationship. You start to create work together that is inspiring to what you're doing, and it’s making you grow, and hopefully it’s making the other person grow as well.

GKJ: Does that change when you also happen to be dating?

MS: It’s complicated. I think that “muse” label is something that other people put on us. People say, “Of course, she was your muse.” I’m like, “Well, she was my girlfriend. She wasn’t my muse.” Basically, we were going out, we were together all the time, and I was learning photography, so I was practicing on her a lot. I was very lucky and I got the opportunity to practice on Kate. And she was also very young, and practicing, and learning about...I don’t want to say she was learning how to model, but I’ll say, she was starting to understand the process of making pictures. She was also learning how to be a huge collaborator in the artist’s process.

GKJ: I do often wonder, what your careers would look like, if you hadn’t embarked on them together. Do you ever think about that?

MS: You know what, I actually think that, for many years after Kate and I broke up, it was very, very important to prove to myself and to prove to the people that I worked with that it wasn’t just about taking pictures of Kate. I wanted to prove that I was an artist and a photographer, and that I wasn’t a one-hit wonder. So, would it have happened the same way if I hadn’t met Kate? No. It would have completely happened in a different way. But I think I’ve gotten to a place in my life where I’d like to think that I would have been at least successful without her as well.

GKJ: I think so. And really, maybe it’s more of a question for Kate since she was so comfortable in these pictures, and so truthful. I wonder if we would have seen that Kate so early if she wasn’t working with someone she loved very much.

MS: Kate has really surpassed any idea, in my opinion of what a model could be. I mean, Kate was a skinny, little, short girl—quirky, with a funny little smile. This was not a model, that you’d think was going to be one of the biggest most iconic models for the next 20 years. I think what I’m trying to say is that in her own right, she would have been a very successful model as well. It was just a really crazy coincidence that we met at that time, and we both blew up together. Or, you could even say, a weird perfect storm.

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