Icons of Photography: Sarah Moon

Sarah Moon was born (as Marielle Hadengue) in 1941 (or perhaps it was 1938 or even 1937) in Paris (or maybe it was London). Sources, even authoritative ones such as the New York Times, disagree about the facts of her life. Uncertainty and indeterminacy are qualities of Moon photography that were there long before she handled a camera. One of her first professional assignments, from Nova magazine in the early 1970s, was to photograph her dreams.

Her father was Franco-American, her mother German-Algerian-French, ‘all mixed, all Jewish’. As the Nazis arrived in Paris, so the family escaped to England, where she spent her early years. Her fairy story years, perhaps, given the subject matter and atmospheres of her pictures. ‘To be more creative is to get closer to childhood,’ she has said. She has made books and films of actual fairy stories — Little Red Riding Hood and The Little Mermaid. And many of her photograph looks like pictures torn from fairy tale books — and found abandoned, on bomb-sites, perhaps.

She studied drawing and started out as a model. ‘My first husband was an artist. I modelled to make money, and not very often.’ Look hard, though, and you’ll find her in Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin pictures. Both photographers remained friends and mentors of a kind. She cites Bourdin’s influence — his obliqueness and narrative content, most probably, rather than his sexual urgencies and greedy colours. Her tonal palette is restricted and gated, though lush and original. ‘I don’t really like colour,’ she has said. ‘To make it work for me, I have to mess with it. I believe that the essence of photography is black and white. Colour is but a deviance. Except when one works with very untrue colours, such as Polaroid. I believe that if I didn’t work in commercial photography, I would never work in color. It’s in black and white that I visualize.’

She moved behind the camera in 1970 when she was already 29. The late start hints at fear — of failure, of course, but of success, too, perhaps. That delay, though, seems to have provided time and space for her exotic style to develop in private, untrammelled by the world’s demands. It was almost fully formed from the start. She took that new name, as well, picking ‘Sarah Moon’ as the credit for her first published work. ‘I was still a model and I had to choose a name because I didn’t want people to stop working with me because I was doing photographs. It was a way of hiding.’

Within three years, she was something of star. She was one of the small group of photographers who shaped the visual atmosphere of fashionable London in the period between the demise of its swinging sixties and the rise of punk. In her pictures, there was a child-like playing with historical imagery — of the 1930s and the 1890s, in particular — and a fragility to the models. ‘Fresh little foals with long legs, bright faces and round dolly eyes’ in the words of Barbara Hulanicki, founder and creator of Biba, the clothes outlet that effectively invented mass-market women’s fashion and for which Moon was almost house photographer.

She took the same look and feel — of slightly drugged and bruised delicacy — into her editorial work. Her British Vogue picture of a coltish, blank-faced girl in pierrot make-up and white, flounced Celia Birtwell frock, sitting at a café table with an equally unfocused Jack Russell is one of the iconic images of the period. An accurate one, too — a reflection not just of Moon’s own self-conscious innocence but of the 1972 girl-on-the-London-bus. She looks like a refugee from a pantomime — or a dream.

Things move very slowly in Moon pictures, if at all. Fashion editor on Nova, Caroline Baker, recalled Moon waiting till 4pm to take her first picture, by which time the models ‘would have collapsed and slouched into the Sarah Moon pose. That’s the moment she really likes. Her girls were always passive and dreamy.’ Distant, wrapped in thought, clouded, in a state of reverie. Moon: ‘Each photograph is the last witness, or even the last evidence of a moment that would otherwise be lost forever; it is the sense of loss, and of time passing by.’

This blurry vision is, to her mind, innate. She is extremely short-sighted. ‘As a mole. It was only when I started photography that I became aware of it. People would say to me: But its not sharp! And I didn’t understand, because that was the way I saw things, I had never worn glasses in my life.’ There are not many pictures of her. One, probably taken in the early 1980s, is a self-portrait in which she looks like Dustin Hoffman as Tootsie, her curly brown hair framing big, thick glasses.

In 1972, she became the first woman to photograph the Pirelli calendar. She shot in Paris, at the Villa des Tilleuls, in a rich, blurry colour reminiscent of Degas’ paintings of ballerinas. The models are small women, childlike, with rosebud lips and dressed, mostly, in archaic underwear. What little bare flesh there is seems accidental — and quite unvoyeuristic. The pictures are certainly sensual but quite unsexual. The air is of a fin-de-siècle brothel in which the customers and bosses have gone home, leaving the girls to themselves. The Villa des Tilleuls was the Paris headquarters of the Gestapo.

This early Moonscape is a world of young women — girls, almost. The few men in it are hidden, sometimes behind animal masks. Her fascination is with shapes. ‘The curve of the neck, the balance of the hips, the gesture of the hand. It’s not always the face that dictates.’ A child from above, caught and framed by a thump of light. A 1977 picture, Nu — a naked woman, seated, with her head and face torn from the image. Dramatic, narrative-laden, quite unsalacious. An unprecedented and radical take on the 3000-year history of the Western nude.

Her pictures were the public face of Cacharel for twenty years. She worked for French Elle, Italian Vogue and shot campaigns for Comme des Garçons, Chanel, Rykiel, Miyake and Lacroix. Of her fashion photography, she said: ‘I love the fact that it gives me limits, and I love the architecture of clothes.’ She moved on, though, particularly after 1985, into art galleries and the film world. She even made a pop video, for Khaled’s Aïcha.

While her early work is soft focus, she later developed a second style, one of deep, deep, deep saturated colour – so intense and seductive that the colour doesn’t just take on meaning but embodies it. Eggleston’s colour is demotic, found in the world; Bourdin’s is splashed on to it, violently; Moon’s colour is just as potent and dramatic but more complex, softer. As ever with her work, it is the colour of our dreamworlds: simple, paradoxical, impossible in our waking state, childishly unbothered by or interested in the laws of physics and optics. A model in a Miyake dress: an image of bright green, dark red, off-white, night-black: colour as emotion, narrative even.

She tries not to talk about her personal life — about her early years in England, her engineer father, her four brothers and sisters. Some things are known, though. ‘I am small,’ she has said, knowingly linking the physical and the psychological. She lives in Paris, in no little style, in the 14th arrondissement and is married to Robert Delpire, the art publisher who, in 1958, put out Les Américains, the first version of Robert Frank’s record of his trans-American odysseys. In 2008, he published Sarah Moon: 1 2 3 4 5, a luscious prize-winning five-volume record of his wife’s photographs and films. ‘Sarah knows instinctively that the petals fall too soon,’ he wrote in his blurb.

© Peter Silverton 2019

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