Mario Sorrenti recalls his early ’90s snapshots of Kate Moss

On the occasion of his new book ‘Kate,’ photographer Mario Sorrenti discusses starting out his career, slowing down in the age of digital photography, and passing on his craft to his daughter Gray.

When Kate Moss and Mario Sorrenti first met in London the summer of 1991 during a modeling job, Sorrenti was immediately taken with her. They met again by chance a few months later at a party, and the photographer recalls spending the whole evening together, “walking into the early morning until we fell asleep in the grass in Hyde Park. We spent the next two years together; we were inseparable.”

Earlier this month Phaidon released Kate, a collection of 50 portraits (see an exclusive image from the book above) of Moss taken by Mario Sorrenti during that period. At the time Sorrenti was an emerging photographer, sleeping on his agent’s couch and pinching pennies to buy film. The book, edited by Dennis Freedman, the founding creative director of W magazine, offers an intimate glimpse at their relationship. Though they eventually served as inspiration for the iconic Calvin Klein Obsession campaign that launched both of their careers, these images of Kate sunbathing, clipping her bathing suit to a clothesline, and nursing a wound on her foot were originally intended for Sorrenti’s diary.

Today, Sorrenti is considered one of the most prolific and well-respected fashion photographers of our time. As his daughter, Gray Sorrenti, an 18-year-old budding photographer with a Loewe campaign under her belt, begins her career, the elder Sorrenti reflects on the early ’90s, how his photography practice has evolved over the past few decades, and passing down the craft.

Maraya Fisher—You’ve been holding on to these images for a little while, what inspired you to publish them now?

Mario Sorrenti—I’m just really slow [laughs]. A lot of people would tell you that. About eight years ago my wife, who was in charge of organizing and digitizing my archives, came across all the pictures and she told me, ‘you know you should really do something with these, they’re so beautiful.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, sure, one day it’ll be the right time, who knows.’ When I showed the pictures to Dennis Freedman,  he told me that I really needed to make the book. He really pushed me into finally doing this. It took about three years to get the time together to edit the pictures, because we did it during our off time, and we really took our time because there was no rush to it. Then about ten months ago, Dennis met with the people at Phaidon. From that point on we really went full steam ahead; we finished the edit, and I started doing the prints.  

Maraya—Well I’m glad he convinced you; they’re really beautiful prints.

Mario—Thank you. I’m glad too because it’s really nice to see them all together in a book. It’s a big difference from when you’re editing pictures and printing them. Now, when you see them all together in a book you’re like, “Wow! This is so cool!!”

“We were only 19 and 20. We just wanted to go out with our friends, and party and hang out, and have a good time and make enough money to support ourselves.”

Maraya—With the benefit of hindsight I look back at these images, and I see this is you and Kate on the cusp of a major ascent in both of your careers, but at the time, how did you envision your future?

Mario—I don’t know… I really don’t. The one thing I remember specifically from back then is me sleeping on a couch and just thinking how in the hell am I going to start making money from taking pictures? How am I going to turn this passion into a career or turn it into something that is going to support me? And so, my vision? I didn’t really have a vision at all about what my life was going to be, all I wanted to do was just to be able to make pictures and to be able to support myself doing it, you know?

Maraya—Did you at all anticipate what happened after?

Mario—No, not at all. I don’t think any of us did, really. It was so beyond the scope of what was in our reach. It was a totally different time, a different world. There was no social media, no digital photography, no phones, no internet. Our worlds were very small and immediate. We were kids. We were only 19 and 20. We just wanted to go out with our friends, and party and hang out, and have a good time and make enough money to support ourselves. The scope was really small. I know that Kate never thought, Oh I’m going to be one of the biggest models in the world for the next 20 years.

Maraya—There must be such a big difference between being a young photographer then and being a young photographer now.

Mario—Yeah I think people today can see that reality more clearly for themselves, possibly because the world is so at everybody’s fingertips today.

Maraya—How has your photography practice evolved since that time?

Mario—I mean, it’s evolved quite a lot. For those pictures, it was just me and a camera and a couple of rolls of film. I was being very considerate about my photography and what I was shooting, because we didn’t have money to buy loads of film or get it processed. Photography as a whole was much more considered. Now I have now two assistants, we’re shooting digital, we’re working in an office. So it’s definitely a different practice—much more mature. But I still have the same passion for photography that I had then. I still go away on my own and take pictures, I still print stuff on my own for myself. I almost lead a double life; I have a professional life where I’ve become sort of the master of my craft, and I help people come up with ideas and realize those ideas into images. Then I disappear by myself with my family and my camera and take pictures and experiment and try and find things that I love and try to discover them again.

“I’m very, very lucky to have the professional life today that can facilitate just me being able to be on own and take pictures and dream.”

Maraya—That’s so wonderful to be able to do both, to live in both worlds.

Mario—I’m very, very lucky to have the professional life today that can facilitate just me being able to be on my own and take pictures and dream.

Maraya—Gray is approaching the age you were when you started your career as a photographer. How does it feel to see her take up that mantle?

Mario—It’s so amazing, I’m so proud of her, it’s incredible. At first it was a shock. One day she asked, ‘Dad can I shoot in your studio?’ And I said, ‘What? What are you talking about?’ She wanted to take some pictures of some of her friends in the studio. So I set her up with my assistant and a camera and just let her do her thing. When Mary and I got back to the studio and saw what she had done, we were just like floored. I was like, ‘What? Oh my god, this is amazing!’

I’m just watching her and her passion grow while she learns and takes pictures. Now she’s got my cameras from back then. She’s shooting on the same Pentax that I used for all those pictures in the book. It’s so beautiful. And I love talking about photography with her. You’re not just somebody that happens to be holding a camera and taking pictures, but you’re going into situations where you need to create situations and have ideas about the things you want to photograph and how you want to photograph them. I think that’s what separates photographers. I love just being a part of that with her; it’s great.

Maraya—That’s really special. What pieces of advice do you give her?

Mario—Well, it’s funny. We go through our life not paying attention to light and not paying attention to color. I always remind her to always look at the light, always understand where it’s coming from, what the shadows are doing, what reflective light is happening, what kind of colors are being created from the light or the reflective light. When you’re thinking about color, you have to start looking at the world and really focusing and dissecting colors in life. Why are they happening? Why is there a green in a room that’s not green? Is it because all the trees outside are green and the light that is coming through the window is going through the trees? I spent a life—30 years—thinking about that, and now I can say to her, “Look at those things; you’ll learn a lot from them.”