At Large /SHARE
Sarah Moon for Cacharel, 1969
For Sarah Moon, there is magic in image making. If she’s lucky, illusion takes flight as she presses the shutter button. “Illusion [is] like the chimera,” she tells Magali Jauffret in the grand compendium of her work, 1,2,3,4,5; “that strange alchemy between desire and chance.”
In this momentary flirtation with the unknown, a serendipitous seduction, the French photographer and filmmaker takes the reality of the scene before her – a woman in a dress, a poppy, a bird or a Paris streetscape – and renders it otherworldly and extraordinary. And while her images seem filtered through the rose-tinted lens of a lover’s gaze, always soft focus, her unique brand of romance speaks also to the word’s other definition: that intoxicating but indistinct feeling of mystery, excitement and remoteness from the everyday that we all covet sometimes. To look at an image by Sarah Moon is to catch a stolen glimpse into a world we can’t quite reach on our own. Her style is so easily described as dreamlike, perhaps because it simply doesn’t exist outside of her imagination.
Moon has been bewitching people with her work for more than five decades, from 1968, when Barbara Hulanicki – founder of iconic London fashion label Biba – “was haunted by her pictures that were all over Paris for Cacharel”, right up to the present day. Aussie model Codie Young from Priscillas – also a painter and poet who has worked with Moon many times over the past four years – describes photographs that “belong to a world of their own”; the characters she creates “so mysterious that you long to know the story behind the person in the image”.
Early collaborations with Cacharel, Biba and Nova magazine (all trailblazing tear-ups of the status quo in their own right), would set an auspicious precedent: in 1972 Moon became the first woman to shoot the Pirelli Calendar, and in the decades since her fashion stories have appeared everywhere from Harper’s Bazaar and Visionaire to imprints of Vogue the world over. She has shot campaigns for the likes of Chanel, Christian Lacroix, Dior, Comme des Garçons, Issey Miyake, Valentino and Yohji Yamamoto. With Moon’s fashion work melting into the realms of fine art photography and interests that lie beyond an asymmetric hemline, she has also found a home in the gallery space.
Until the end of February, the House of Photography at Hamburg’s Deichtorhallen is exhibiting Sarah Moon – Now and Then, a retrospective, the most comprehensive to date, that traces the artist’s career through five films and some 350 photos. In the space between (then and now), the 76-year-old has kept moving and remains prolific. She might claim, as she does in 1,2,3,4,5, to have been “taking the same picture for twenty years”, but her style rolls with the decades: timeless in its ability to make any shoot, viewed today, look as fresh and iconoclastic as the day it was published.
Sarah Moon for Biba
Moon’s photographic journey began in the late 60s after several years spent modelling in Europe, where she would work with some of the greats: Irving Penn, Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin, to name a few. She began experimenting with a camera and her own style – a dreamy departure from the bold linearity of her male precursors – when designer Jean Bousquet called on her to create the romantic universe for which his brand Cacharel would become known. (This creative partnership would span 20 years.)
She exists in a canon of female photographers who re-imagined fashion photography with their naturalistic and unconventional sensibilities, stylistically, having much in common with the late Lillian Bassman and Deborah Turbeville. “We were hurtling about starting the catalogues and there were so many photographers I wanted to use,” Hulanicki recalls of the time she first set eyes on Moon’s work – on bus stops no less, she laughs. “It was only much later after Hans Feurer, Helmut Newton, that I really wanted to work with a woman photographer as I thought the Biba image was softening and becoming more feminine and romantic. Before the clothes were much harder and graphic. Then Sarah discovered [model and ballerina] Ingrid Boulting and the whole image was perfect for Biba.”
Hulanicki and Moon came together on the same wavelength and with a love for “old movies”. In catalogues and posters, these photos of Boulting – round-faced, curly-haired and soft, smoky-eyed – came to crystallise the ‘Biba girl’ image. They also captured the zeitgeist of the late 60s and early 70s; when straight hair, short skirts and Op Art dissolved into something altogether more sinuous, and a second-wave feminist movement saw women cast in a new light.
This new mood was soon encapsulated further in Moon’s Pirelli Calendar, which she was commissioned to shoot by the calendar’s Art Director Derek Forsyth in a bid to tone down its sexual content. In the arc of half a century, this unlikely icon – a tyre manufacturer’s annual corporate gift – has inadvertently charted both the fashion landscape and attitudes towards the female form, and never so much as in this moment.
A mild paradox perhaps, but Moon also broke a tradition herself by being the first photographer to show naked breasts in the calendar. Under her gaze, however, the result was not pheromone-fuelled and provocative but instead sensuous, painterly and almost classical. Her Pirelli Calendar was a dream sequence set in Paris, where she still lives and works from the city’s Left Bank (where else?). Shot in the then-abandoned Villa les Tilleuls, it featured models cast in Moon’s signature diffused light; bathed in muted tones of honey and blush, waiting languidly as though for rich customers of a deluxe Belle Époque bordel.
The lazy, half-light atmospheres and fictional narratives Moon creates in her photos are no happy accidents, but idiosyncratic of her creative process. Fashion Editor Caroline Baker (the woman widely credited as being the first fashion stylist) remembers fondly the stories she and Moon would produce together for the irreverent and revolutionary women’s magazine Nova in the late 60s and early 70s. “Sarah Moon was an amazing artist-photographer: I loved working with her,” she says. “Each shoot would take three days, at least, as Sarah got so intensely involved and took loads of film and loads of time to get what she wanted. Everything took ages, lighting was crucial to her, and she liked it when models got so tired and passive from waiting so long for a shoot to take place. That was when she would start to take pictures.”
Pirelli Calander, 1972 by Sarah Moon
The 23-year-old Young (who models internationally after being discovered, aged 18, in Queensland) has enjoyed working with Moon in more recent times, agreeing that “she is truly a special artist”. Through shoots for Valentino, Vogue, Neiman Marcus and more, she too has come to learn Moon’s idiosyncrasies. Still shooting on film, “she uses Polaroids to keep track of the images she has taken already,” Young says, revealing, “I have a number of Polaroids that she has let me keep over the years, which I’ll love dearly forever ... She knows what she likes, what she wants and will always achieve the artistic desire she is searching for by the end of the shoot.”
Moon sees each shoot as a film, Baker adds tellingly: while she is best known for her photography, cinema was her first love and over the years she has focused energy into creating shorts (lovely, melancholic riffs on fairytales) and even two feature-length films: Mississippi One (a cult hit in Japan), released in 1991, and 5h-5, released in 2012. It seems both disciplines – film and photography – lend themselves to one another. While each moment in Moon’s film work is as carefully composed as a still image, her photographs harness a cinematic quality that makes you feel like you’ve stepped right into the middle of a scene. “Sarah was heavily influenced by Hollywood in the 20s and 30s, and movie stars of that era,” Baker recalls, as well as German expressionist films. Transplant Marlene Dietrich into a freeze-frame from Nosferatu and you might come close to one of her photographs. So starry-eyed was she over cinema that “… never did I think that one day I’d be able to make films”, she tells Jauffret in 1,2,3,4,5. “It seemed as unlikely as touching the moon.”
Perhaps this is why, born Marielle Warin, she works under the artist’s name of Sarah Moon. Was this enigmatic reinvention an act of stargazing romance for Moon, of self-manifestation? It seems as though Moon, a private artist, expresses her whole self through photography. That – through her labour-intensive, time-honoured process – she is only mirrored back to herself upon the reveal of her negatives. For in the moment she clicks the button, she is as uncertain as any of us.