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Sarah Moon, photo novels

December 3 2016

Sarah Moon's photographs are recognizable as reality. For more than 40 years, the artist creates a novel work and plays with the exposure time as to blur the spatio-temporal boundaries. - Isabelle Cerboneschi


As a child, I flipped through the old collections of Vogue from my mother, especially from the 70 years. Some images made you want to break the rules of logic and to enter, breaking into this world not really wonderful, but out of sync. Images that seemed to say that sometimes the reality can take a step aside to let us glimpse another possible. It was beautiful, strange, disturbing. And it was blurry. Maybe not really blurry, no, it was moved, these photos expressed a kind of motion in stillness. Those images that had an aspiring effect were those of Sarah Moon. In the same issue, they rubbed shoulders with Guy Bourdin or Helmut Newton, but their unreality was quite different.

The name of Sarah Moon is linked to that of Cacharel for whom she created dreamlike campaigns. And yet one must know how to dissociate her commercial work from her much larger personal work: short films, feature films, exhibitions, biography, books, more than 150 commercials ... Between 2008 and 2010, she has made films that tell her own story some famous childhood tales: Little Red Riding Hood, Little Black Riding Hood, Circuss after The little girl with matches, The Barn after The Little Soldier of lead, The Red Thread after Bluebeard, The Auderville Siren after The little Mermaid. A way to reveal a contemporary social reality that often borders on the sordid. "I tell stories," she says. I rewrite them, I use them in their symbolic dimension, far from the fairy imagery. Because tales do not end well in general: Little Red Riding Hood turns black, Circuss's Little Match Girl dies, the Auderville Mermaid can not go back to the sea anymore. That's the way it is. No happy end! "

In 2015, the artist accompanied a photographic project of women in precarious situation organized by the 100 voice association. Far from the sophisticated images of dark-eyed models. We recognize the characters she portrays in their eyes, precisely, immense, devouring, surrounded by black. His images could be affiliated with the Expressionist stream, if it could be used for something to link his work to anything preexisting.

Sarah Moon, born in 1941, says that everything written about her and her childhood is wrong. One more way of blurring the tracks, or of erasing them, or of keeping one's interlocutor in the present, sparing him the worry of biased biographical research.

In June 2016, she was in Paris to present a makeup collection created in collaboration with François Nars. The choice of pallets was made during the pose sessions: the images of Sarah Moon serving both packaging and advertising campaign. Sarah inspired me so much when I was a teenager! I cut out his photos, I knew his work so well that it was really child's play for me to create a collection of colors, says François Nars.

The colors seem indeed out of the images of Sarah Moon. Some smoky colors, typical of Sarah's makeup in the 70 years on the Cacharel campaigns, adds the make-up artist. His work is not just that, but these ads were like paintings. We saw women with very smoky eyes, very 30 years, very Man Ray. I decided to create a color palette a little dirty, very gray, indefinable. And especially red, very intense, very Sarah, because she like me have a love story with red, the real one.

IC: Why did you choose blur as a mode of photographic expression? Sarah Moon: I started working with a film called Ansco that had grain. And for a while I put a transparent paper in front of the lens. It has lasted an era, but it is rather the double exhibitions that gave this impression of vagueness.

Like a character who would be taken in several spaces?
It was as if there was wind: with the wind, the hair moves. It was a way to give some movement to the static.

We have the impression that reality is fading away from your perception of reality and the long exposure times you use. Because I am not realistic. I'm not a reporter and in a way, the photo is an escape for me. So it's fiction.

Is it not also a way of erasing temporal landmarks?
Unfortunately, we do not erase them. When you say that my work is timeless, I think it's also because I'm not trendseven when I'm in fashion or beauty. I "temporalize" the subject to get it out of the real world. I do not think that choosing the right models, especially fashionable, gives my work a more timeless side. Not to mention the fact that I do not have the taste of conventions.

Does your work express some form of unreality? Yes, or fiction. It is often said that my photos are romantic, I say they are romantic. And the models are the heroines of the moment.

The world has never been so needed to be told stories, and paradoxically, there are fewer and fewer storytellers in the world of photography: is it the industry that wants that?
Who do you think, for example?

To you, to Guy Bourdin too.
It's not bad to quote Guy Bourdin because it's someone who made me want to do fashion. Fashion was a springboard for his imagination. His images were fiction. Fashion pictures tell a woman that we do not see every day, so we charge her with a story, it's a process. Why there are not many of them storytellers? It remains surely. I think magazines today have the will to standardize the story, so it's harder for young photographers to tell their own story, to impose their own voice. The photo has become more codified, more "marketing-isée". The woman we tell is more dependent on advertisers than photographers.

Yet Guy Bourdin worked for fashion houses: for Charles Jourdan, for example, he carried out extremely daring campaigns!
Yes, but it was a very privileged time when marketing had less space in the photographer's work. Artists before us have also had special moments in Avedon, Penn, Halsman, Sokolsky. There was a variety of jobs much larger and much less uniform than now.

You have a way of using color as if it were a watercolor that does not respect the contours of the subject. What are you trying to erase or make more visible?
It is true that with a photo, there is a relation with the space which is always the blank sheet and that it has limits ... I do not know what I am trying to erase, but I think that in the studio space, I like the colors blend with the background. I like that the limits are indefinite. And what do I want to emphasize? I do not know. It is a pretext finally, these overtaking.

One of the faces of François Nars' cosmetics campaign is Anna von Ravenstein, the daughter of Pat Cleveland. She has a face that makes me think a little bit of that of Brigitte Helm who played in theAtlantis et Metropolis.
Me, it makes me rather think of the women of Picasso, you see? These women who have very pronounced features, really beautiful, not conventional at all.

Is his face for you like a blank page on which to invent new stories?
The models are all more or less blank pages, but she has a real personality, she has a nose, special eyes. There are models with more erased beauty, but she really exists.

The models of the countryside are surrounded by a transparent carapace, a bit like a halo that makes the identification of the time difficult. This staging, is it a way to join a retro-futuristic era as was envisaged in the 30 years?
In fact, the idea was that transparency is a haven for makeup and skin. The corset and helmet actually have an aesthetic of the 30 years, but we can not recreate MetropolisI did not have this ambition. This aesthetic probably influenced the design of the dress. But Metropolis has made so much sense that as soon as we see a helmet today, we think of this film.

What role does makeup play in an image? It helps for the light, it adds, from the moment it is not a mask. If he knows how to emphasize the traits that we want to put forward, the shadows and the lights, it is a contribution.

Your eye shadow choices are always extremely dark. They are loaded, yes. It's a question of taste. I like that the eyes sink. It brings something to the eye.

A bit like a painting by Kees van Dongen? At van Dongen, it's much darker: there is a black paint around the eye. Me, I do not like it to be emphasized, I like that it is shadows and lights. A halo.

A version of this interview was published in the 3 December 2016 Deluxe Special Series.