Sarah Moon

"To be more creative is to get closer to childhood." 

"Very often I say to myself: I would like to make a photo where nothing happens. But in order to eliminate, there has to be something to begin with. For nothing to happen, something has to happen first."

Born in England in 1940, Moon made her name in haute couture fashion photography with luxurious and mysterious compositions. This gorgeous volume brings together that work with her other images in an exciting first retrospective. In the fashion work, her models are studious and disengaged, often turned away or intentionally blurred themselves transformed to a compositional element. Images of animals, portraits, still lifes, and wonderful landscapes both rural and urban fill out her oeuvre. In her black-and-white images, Moon (also a filmmaker) masterfully tends the edges of darkness where the merest hints of light create detail, texture, and form. Her tasty color work is highly saturated and grainy. Innovative, witty, and seductive, Moon's photographs draw the viewer into a dream world, at once soothing and vaguely troubled like the opening of a storm. 

Here is the interview of Sarah Moon:

Frank Horvat : Your photos are often criticized as too pretty, as if that prettiness was a formula, an easy way out.
Sarah Moon : I'm glad you raise the point. It is true that there was this appearance of preciousness, of cuteness, especially at the beginning. I was so seduced by seduction! Now, a whole period of my work seems far away from me, I no longer identify with it.

Frank Horvat : I didn't mean that I dislike your older photos. Recently I leafed through your books with a group of young people who work with me. We took a sort of poll about the photos we liked most, and often our choice fell on the oldest, for instance the young woman on the path, with the little dog.
Sarah Moon : It's among the ones that I don't reject.

Frank Horvat : And the other young woman on a sort of grid, with a little girl who makes a gesture...
Sarah Moon : "Charlie Girl", I don't reject that one either. It's a black and white photo. 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.

Frank Horvat : But among our preferences there were also some color photos. The still life with fruits, for example.
Sarah Moon The pears. But in that one color is thinned down, manipulated, kind of color without color. That one I like.

Frank Horvat : Still, you are one of the very few photographers who have found new ways to deal with color.
Sarah Moon : I don't really like color. To make it work for me, I have to mess with it. I believe that the essence of photography is black and white. Color is but a deviance. Except when one works with very untrue colors, such as Polaroid, or as in certain photos by Paolo Roversi, where color is flattened, so that painting is no longer the reference.

Frank Horvat : You did, however, find some new solutions, at a time when many people were putting color film into their cameras, while still thinking in black and white or believing they were doing color photography, when they were only letting themselves be seduced by whatever patch of violent color they found . You increased grain and used it as a kind of filter, to cut out some of the surplus of information recorded by your camera. It's a great idea: as color film carries too much information to be organized into a harmonious whole, you lessen the information by introducing grain, so that you can deal with what's left, in the same way you would deal with black and white.
Sarah Moon : It's true that grain breaks down colors, like a filter. On the other hand, I am less and less interested in grain for my black and white work, I would rather get sharpness and texture.

Frank Horvat : Because black and white, by itself, acts like a filter. So grain becomes one filter too many.
Sarah Moon : Yes, an easy way out.

Frank Horvat : Besides, some of your black and white photos are perfectly sharp. I think of the young woman, with her back to the camera, wearing a polka dot dress and seated in front of a window. It was another one of our favorites.

Sarah Moon : Suzanne? Yes, I like that one, too. There are some that I like, of course. But there are many that I now find too cute, that annoy me.

Frank Horvat : Another issue that seems to preoccupy you is commercial work. You often insist that working on assignment is not necessarily an obstacle to creativity. I wouldn't dream of contradicting you about this, but I wonder if that is the real problem. For me the problem lies not so much in the assignment, as in the staging. Can a photo be directed, like a movie? Is directing compatible with the essence of photography?
Sarah Moon : I've always felt that photography provides an opportunity for staging, for telling a story through images. What I aim at, is an image with a minimum of information and markers, that has no reference to a given time or place - but that nevertheless speaks to me, that evokes something which happened just before or may happen just after. I know that many people question this way of photographing, but why should there be only one sort of photography? I want to create images with elements of my choosing, narrative or evocative, beyond the document about that particular woman wearing that dress. I give myself a literary frame, I tell a story. It's the only springboard I have found for taking a leap. On the other hand, I am interested in commercial photography because it provides me with a purpose. The agreement between client and photographer seems perfectly fair to me. They give me the opportunity to make images, on condition that I show their product in a favorable light. I get paid for doing it and am given the means to do it well. This submits me to a discipline, which is something I need, because for me it's easier to do things when I find myself obliged to do them. To do them just for my pleasure would seem irrelevant.

Frank Horvat : I believe, just as you do, that a photo intended to sell a product can be just as interesting as any other one. But that's not the point that worries me. What I am asking myself is whether a completely staged photo can still be interesting as a photo. Whether there is a threshold, beyond which staging no longer leaves space for the very essence of photography, which is opening a door to the unexpected. For me, this is the greatest problem with assignments. It seems to me that you, in your most successful photographs, allowed for such an opening. And I am sure that when you edit your slides or your contacts, the photo you choose is the one where the unexpected appears.
Sarah Moon : It is true that when I create a frame, a setting, I always expect that within that frame some accident or some surprise will come up. To seat someone on a chair, for example, can be the beginning of a photo, even though it may not mean much by itself. But if I say, possibly only to communicate with the model: "You sit on this chair, and you are waiting, as if you were on a platform at a railway station," that may introduce the sense of an event, may help me to create the feeling of a situation. Perhaps it is only a device that I need for myself. But now I feel disturbed by what you say, by its expression of reluctance, as if for you the idea of staging is negative, a minus rather than a plus.

Frank Horvat : Yes and no. If I bring it up, it's not to criticize you, though it is true that I want to pull your strings, just to get your reaction. If only because I had to defend myself on that same issue, facing the criticism of my friends at Magnum, who believed that photography had to be a document and a testimony. For many years they made me feel guilty for not sharing their belief or following their rules.
Sarah Moon : I used to feel faulted, too, by the "purists" of photography, who saw me as someone who had sold her soul to the devil, because I cashed in my creativity for money. Which they did too, obviously, since they sold their reporting, for less money but with the feeling that they were witnessing some reality. Whereas I only witness my fantasies, my way of seeing beauty in women, which of course is entirely personal, asocial and apparently superficial. Above all, I felt faulted by the little interest that they had for my photos, while I had so much for theirs.

Frank Horvat : Cartier-Bresson once said to me: "You must choose. It's OK to witness reality, as we do, and it's OK to stage, as Avedon does. But one shouldn't combine the two." I didn't accept this, and possibly I was right, since it is precisely my photos of that period that seem interesting today, and precisely because of that ambiguity. But I would like to return to our starting point: you do still photography, but also film. In both cases, you allow a certain margin for the unexpected. Are the rules of the game identical? Does film allow as much margin? Or is there something different, something specific about the unexpected in a still photograph?
Sarah Moon : For me it's the same. It's always like a state of grace, like the appearance of something that I hadn't foreseen, that surprises me and stops me. If I only did what I had in mind, there would be no emotion. It would be like keeping one's eyes shut rather than open, like theorizing rather than seeing.

Frank Horvat : For me a good photo is one that cannot be repeated. I think of, in some of your photos, the hands of those young women and the way those hands relate to each other. "She caught it once" I say to myself while I look at them. "She couldn't ever catch the same thing again."
Sarah Moon : What is it you do not like about it?

Frank Horvat : The very fact of the sequence. I cannot look at the sequence without imagining Sarah staging it - so there is no mystery left. Whereas in front of the single photo I wonder: "Who is this little girl? How did Sarah meet her? What happened?"
Sarah MoonIt is true that from all these narrative series, intended to appear on three of four magazine spreads, I only show one image in my exhibitions or my books. As if I had only worked for that photo. What bothers you about a series? Is it the variation on a theme?

Frank Horvat : It's that it takes us backstage.
Sarah Moon : And possibly the fact that I tell a story with a beginning and an end, instead of letting each image, by itself, suggest a beginning and an end. Repetition gives a key, and with that key, one no longer feels the same curiosity. I agree with that. Very often I say to myself: "I would like to make a photo where nothing happens." My dream would be to achieve that purity. But in order to eliminate, there must be something there to begin with. For nothing to happen, something has to happen first. When I work on a set, with a lot of props, I end up by throwing most of them out, or by mixing them up, or by using mirrors so that one doesn't know what is part of the set and what isn't. I would like to get rid of all the make-up, so that the make-up would be forgotten, to take off all the clothes. I spend my time eliminating things, with the hope that there will be something left that will surprise me, that will make me forget that I am in a studio, in front of a model that I have booked, on a set on which I have spent hours fussing, with lights that it has taken a whole day to set up. Ultimately, what makes me press the shutter is a feeling of recognition. As if suddenly I felt: "yes, that's it ". In fact, these are the very words that come to my lips. I "recognize" something that I had never seen until that moment, that is beyond all my intentions. As in that photo of the polka-dot dress, with Suzanne's back. What I like about it is its weight. It was a moment when I was photographing something else. Suddenly I turned around and there it was. That's what I mean by "a gift".
Frank Horvat : I have been told - or did you say it? - that you are extremely near-sighted.
Sarah Moon : As a mole! that's why I have to work with a tripod. But it helps for sensing the light, and also for judging the relations between shapes. I'm good at both. It was only when I started photography that I became aware of it. People would say to me: "But it's not sharp!", and I didn't understand, because that was the way I saw things, I had never worn glasses in my life.

Frank Horvat : How do you edit your slides? On a projector?
Sarah Moon : Simply on a light table, with a loupe. You know, I make the same photo two thousand times, over and over, expecting it to happen, being afraid of missing it. I only stop when the people who work for me refuse to continue. And even then I have regrets, I keep telling myself that something else might yet happen.

Frank Horvat : Frank Horvat: It's the same for me. What I find astonishing, is that I tend to shoot more and more, while at the same time leaving less and less room for the unexpected. When I photograph in the street, on the contrary, where millions of things happen all the time, I don't take that many shots or insist on a given situation. While in my studio, with a light that I know well, in front of a model that I have directed into an attitude I find acceptable - and from which I only allow her to try some slight variations, like turning her head or moving her fingers - I could go on shooting ten rolls: because I expectsomething from those fingers.
Sarah Moon : Me too. I am there, in front of her, having no idea of what she should do, and even if I had one, not knowing how to tell her. I feel that it has to come from her, it's like hypnotism, I look and look and wait. Of course, from time to time, I click the shutter, if only to encourage her, to encourage myself, to encourage everyone around.

Frank Horvat : But do you know when you've got the photo? Or are you never quite sure?
Sarah Moon : Sometimes I know. But most of the time, even when I believe I've got it, I can't stop myself from searching further and soon I forget that I thought I got it.

Frank Horvat : It's exactly the same for me.
Sarah Moon : Because it happens so fast. And a second later I'm not sure any more that it has happened. At a given moment, I tell everyone: "That's it, we have finished!" but then I ask them to stay for one more roll, just in case, and then for another one. Because I am always afraid of having missed something, in spite of all the trouble I took to bring together all those elements, which tomorrow won't be there. The passing of time makes me panic. When I feel moved by the beauty of a young woman, what overwhelms me is the impermanence, the feeling that it must be captured in that particular instant. I see beauty appearing and disappearing, and I feel disheartened, because I am never sure that I live up to the privilege, that I do what has to be done to convey what I saw. Our anguish, our feeling of guilt stems from the knowledge that it depends on us, on our way of seeing what's in front of our eyes. Not only that particular sitting seems too short, not only that working day, but our whole life as photographers, we are always afraid that it may already be over. Maybe I shouldn't go too long without working, my engine should run every day, because when it doesn't, I don't give myself a chance to make things happen. I should accept the risk of failure, tell myself that failure is not the worst: even though I can't afford failing an assignment, I have at least the right to fail what I do for myself. I should simply say to myself: "Every day I'm going to make a photo."

Paris, November 1986

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