Interview with a Photographer: Sarah Moon

Here’s an interview I did with British-born, French photographer Sarah Moon about ten years ago.

Moon visited Toronto in spring 1999 to introduce a retrospective entitled Inventaire 1985-1999 at the Jane Corkin Gallery. It’s funny, but the Moon’s work still looks as fresh as it did in 1999 (and it looked as fresh in 1999 as it did in 1977). I’ve updated the story a little, but I’ll let the links supply more recent information on Moon and her work.

Moon first gained notoriety for shooting a series of now-iconic Cacharel ads over 20 years ago. These spots featured sort of retro-’20s bohemian waifs and looked like the photographs were hand-tinted and covered in a sort of patina of nostalgia. They were also wholly original for their time.

By 1999, her most striking images are saturated with colour or are in richly toned black and white. Most importantly, her work is concerned with form over content. Models become the background and the shape of the clothing becomes the focus. In her 1999 spring/summer campaign for Hermès, the model is completely absent, replaced by a peacock wearing a watch around his long, skinny neck. like an Inuit sculptor discovering his subject in the soapstone, Moon said, “It’s more the form of the clothing that makes these pictures exist.” She noted that the works selected for the retrospective of her fashion and fine art photography – the images that can stand alone on the wall – tend toward the abstract. “I know vaguely what I’m looking for,” she said, smiling, “but I don’t always achieve it.”

Speaking in rapid fire, clipped English, Moon was enchanting, truly at ease in her own skin. Dressed in a mix of Japanese and French designers, her small, fine boned face framed with owlish, tortoisehell glasses, she easily looked 10 years younger than her 58 years.

When asked if having a woman behind the camera changes the dynamic of fashion photography, Moon replied, “I think so. [Female photographers and models] don’t work on the same terms of seduction. We work as a team. The camera enhances that dialogue. When I was a model there was not the same rapport [with male photographers].” With female shooters, she added, “there was a kind of complicity.”

Moon’s photographic work led to directing television commercials for Cacherel, among others. This, in turn, led to her co-writing and directing a feature-length film, Mississippi One in 1991 – a story about a father who kidnaps his daughter and which Moon describes as a love story that ended badly. “Between the moment I began writing the film, finding money and trying to make it exist,” she said, “it took three years.” Since then, Moon has filmed several documentaries about artists, and at the time of our interview was working on “a portrait with video” about photographer Lillian Bassman.

As Moon pays homage to artists who informed her work with her documentaries, she’s also into working with forward designers such as Martin Margiela (when he was still designing for Hermès) and Alexander McQueen. Moon also admires the photography of American David LaChappelle. “I like the way he takes his job seriously,” she said.

And, no nostalgia here, by 1999 Moon had embraced the digital age, editing her films on an AVID and tinkering with Photoshop. “I love the computer,” she said, “I have nothing against it as long as you don’t feel the machine. It’s the same with the camera. I don’t like to show the kitchen.”

Photo: “Monette pour Commé des Garçons,” from the book Sarah Moon 1 2 3 4 5 (2008).