Davide Sorrenti ArgueSKE 1994-1997 • Photographing your own life

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    The relationship between aesthetics and history, between aesthetics and society is clear but never linear. The aesthetic reflects the times and changes with them without making judgments. Aesthetics is never a critical act, rather it reflects history and society, from a distance that constitutes the indispensable condition for creating authentic empathy. Criticism can be superimposed, but not without betraying its profound nature. This is why his gaze is clear, although not linear. It is not because, contrary to what is generally thought, it does not stop at appearances, but goes straight to what moves them, to the “feeling” that is embodied in history and in society, in their customs, tastes and behaviors. And this, if you will, is also his condemnation. In fact, the aesthetics become thin, sensitive, radiographic, more likely to be misunderstood, misunderstood and cursed, because it shows everyone what we have become, without masks and frills, so, brutally. And no society likes to be seen for what lives in it and really moves it. But this is just what aesthetics does, through its most visionary spokesmen, whatever the art on which they look. When Davide Sorrenti appears on the New York scene, he is like an angel fallen from the sky. Young, beautiful, very fragile, the health undermined by thalassemia and the feeling of not being able to live long, of having to try everything in the short time allowed. Love and death are mixed in his somewhat ephebic figure and in the passing of his days. A terrible constraint for some, a formidable school of freedom and a challenge for others, for Davide certainly, who makes it the engine of a memorable artistic production, capable of ranging from graffiti to fashion photography. These are the 90s, and Davide becomes, in spite of himself, the symbol of a certain “heroin chic” aesthetic that for a good part of that decade polarizes fashion photography, on the one hand paying a tribute to Larry Clark's 60s to the 70s of Nan Goldin, on the other reacting to the excesses and the cult of success and wealth of the 80s. Politics appropriates the expression and accuses the fashion world of fostering the taste, even a bit deadly, of excess and destruction, even of making an apology for drugs. Many newspapers ride the misunderstanding and attribute to Davide and his way of photographing a share of responsibility in the introduction of the heroin chic aesthetic in fashion photography. Happy to have a scapegoat that makes thinking simple and clears consciences. Above all, they are happy to be able to scream scandal with the usual Puritan attitude that calms readers and allows them to get around the rock of the matter. Davide, indeed, simply photographed his own life. In his way of shooting and, before that, of living, there was no construction. He looked and reflected his life and his friends. And, even when he devoted himself to fashion photography, he was not the spectator in a world of others, but the observer who participated in his own world. His approach to fashion was much more that of a documentary photographer than that of a glamorous and built photographer. But precisely David's clarity brings with it a complexity that makes his photographic aesthetics so visionary. By photographing his own life, Davide captured the intensity, the intensity that the few days at his disposal offered him, refining his gaze and sensitivity. Davide photographed the proximity of life to death, of euphoria to being lost, of beauty on the precipice. And, in doing so, it brought to light the other face of the terrible, unhinged 80s, with all their slightly indecent display. He brought to light the thanatophile eroticism that inhabited them and that has his obscene truth in the Heroin Chic of the following decade. That does not come from fashion photography, which would not be fashionable if it were not the mirror and spokesperson of one's time. Nor is it born from the work of Davide, who photographed (his) life, showing the latter and the society for what they had become. Which makes his artistic legacy a question, in the end, far more political than worldly. Because the aesthetics of Heroin Chic was not so much a mistake, if one wants to call it so, of the fashion system, but much more a vision of it – aesthetic, in fact, therefore without judgment – of what society harbored in its ravines, nourished in its own taste and kept as its own truth removed. Today, to understand the legacy of Davide Sorrenti, we have the documentary by Charlie Curran See Know Evil and above all the magnificent book written by his mother Francesca, Davide Sorrenti ArgueSKE. 1994-1997, whose dedication reads: “I dedicate this book to my son Davide, whose life and creativity never cease to amaze me after all these years”. An indispensable tribute to protect Davide's work from superficial preconceptions and from a historical judgment too inclined to remove its presence. But above all a gesture of love that embeds Davide in the history of a family with very high creativity, whose members, from mother Francesca to the brothers Mario and Vanina, have been extraordinary interpreters, through the camera, of our time and its tragedy.

    AG: The documentary and, a little later, the book, over twenty years after Davide's death. How are the two projects born?

    FS: It all started when Charlie (Curran, ed), who was then only twenty-one – now he is twenty-eight – saw a book on David's table opened on a school library table. Intrigued, he did a search on the internet and was very impressed with his life and his photographs. So he called Mario (Sorrenti, ed), who addressed him to me, since it was I who kept the archives of Davide. He called me and we talked. I liked his project, but, being my son, it was very difficult for me, I still felt too much pain. Losing a child causes suffering that never goes away. His death, so suddenly, from one day to another, upsets you. In fact I abandoned photography precisely because, being fashion my field, I could no longer say things like “Ah, what beautiful shoes!” Or “How much I like this photo!”. When you have all this pain inside, it becomes impossible to make such speeches. Anyway, I gave Charlie a list of names and he got in touch with these people, who then called me and asked me who that boy was. In the end I said: “All right, let's do this documentary”. But it took seven years, because every now and then I went into crisis. I followed the editing work very carefully and in the end we were definitely satisfied with the result. However we were stunned when DOC NYC decided to present the documentary. At first they intended to project it in the smaller of the two cinemas, but within a quarter of an hour they had already sold all the tickets and so they decided to move the screening to the larger space. Having sold out, they planned a second screening and then a third one. And to say that the weather was horrible, the deluge was coming …

    AG: Let's talk about the book …

    FS: When the documentary came out, David (Owens, ed) and Angela (Hill, ed) of IDEA Publishing called me, because they were in New York and wanted to see the film. After seeing the documentary at my house, David turns to me and says, “Shall we make a book?” We made it in a month. It must be said, however, that the volume does not contain even a third of Davide's work. Now someone proposes to me to make a book with diaries, others to make one dedicated to fashion photos … Yes, with time we will publish other things.

    AG: Book signing was a real event …

    FS: Here in New York there had never been so many people attending the presentation of a book. In two hours at least five hundred people entered, and outside there was a line that ran all around the building. The copies were sold out in half an hour.

    AG: Well, how can we be surprised? Davide has in effect incarnated an epoch, both in the field of fashion, and, more generally, in that of culture, and his own life follows, in a certain sense, the parable of that period. Even for those who did not know David personally, this book represents a slice of history.

    FS: An interesting detail is that the first fifty people who came in to buy the book were all very young, none more than twenty-five. When I asked how they got to know Davide and his story, some replied that they had seen the documentary, others that they had heard about their teachers from Davide at school, others said they had read about him on the pages of iD or Dazed & Confused . Some, then, were members of the Harold Hunter Foundation, dedicated to a famous skater friend of David, who also died, of which there is a photo in the book. But there were people of all ages, from twenty to seventy years. In short, one of those typically New York stories. Thanks to all this, I feel that Davide is still alive. And as far as I'm concerned, it will be as long as I live.

    Showtime – Carolyn and Chris

    © Davide Sorrenti

    AG: It's nice to see how all of you from the Sorrenti family have kept Davide alive in your stories, despite the difficulty of dealing with similar pain.

    FS: Yes, we always talk about him. My children have been very close from an early age. Davide always went to the home of Mario and Vanina. His brother was more of a father figure, while his sister was his partner in crime. I had no one in America, so I always told them that they had to stay together, that they had to love each other and respect each other, because these are the three most important things.

    AG: In the documentary it is said of you that you are a bit like downtown Kennedy …

    FS: For that matter, they also compared us to the Corleones …

    AG: But it's true that you all have a lot of talent, besides being beautiful. It is not easy to find a family where everyone is so good and help each other. We can clearly perceive the love that has always existed between you, which, moreover, shows how wrong it was to reduce David's artistic figure to the phenomenon of Heroin Chic.

    FS: The words I spoke about Davide's coffin were: “This is not chic, this is heroin”. Actually, it wasn't heroin, but I couldn't know then, because it takes three or four months to get the results of an autopsy. We had been to Mexico and Davide had not given the transfusion. He had waited three, indeed, almost four weeks. Yes, he had hired heroin, but the coroner said he had not enough in his body to kill a fly. They said he fell asleep because he was very weak. Davide used drugs more than anything to calm the pain: because of thalassemia, he had the bones of an eighty-year-old.

    AG: He had to sleep every night attached to a device. His twenty years were not our twenty years. Ever since he was one year old you have had to take him to the hospital every two weeks for transfusions.

    FS: Yes, first in Genoa, then in Naples and finally in America, where they treated him much better. But he suffered. He complained of back pain, stomach ache, and legs that hurt. He always said: “If I have to die, who cares. I do what I want ”. This was his attitude. He had a character … A real Neapolitan street urchin.

    AG: His work, however, reveals all its depth, as well as its ability to wander: from graffiti to painting, to fashion … Thanks to the testimony of the documentary and the book, it appears evident that his approach to photography was documentary. He photographed his life, his friends, his family … But when your family is the Sorrenti, when you grew up in a photo studio, surrounded by artists, then your way of living the spirit of the 90s becomes a reaction to the characteristic image of the 80s, which were the exact opposite, that is excess of luxury, beauty, glamor. In fact, Davide says just this: “I don't like glamor. I want real life, I want reality “. So he adopts an aesthetic that, if you want, was that of the skaters, the graffiti artists, the street, and he transfers it to a world that is the one where he grew up, that of fashion.

    FS: Before creating an advertising agency and starting to photograph, I worked with Fiorucci in the 70s, then as a stylist in the 80s. Also, my current husband was a fashion photographer for children when we got together. So fashion has always been part of my life and, consequently, also that of my children. Davide has taken many photo shoots, and in fact the next book that publishers would like to publish concerns the fashion stories. He took them for Interview, i-D, for various French and German newspapers. We also wanted to publish this book to show how his fashion photos were not drug photos. You know, unlike his older brother, Mario, who has always been very reserved, Davide often confided to me. When you have a child who has been sick since he was a child, a special bond is created between you and him. Davide told me about his pain, about his love for Jaime, but he also told me about the stories he wanted to take and I did the same. Not to mention that we helped each other in editing work. Davide had a photojournalistic mentality, he never went out without his camera around his neck, he always and everywhere took pictures, even when he was alone in his room. But in fashion he could be magical, he created romantic images …

    i-D Contacts – Ryan

    © Davide Sorrenti

    'Keep Out' Box

    © Davide Sorrenti

    From Joint – Cabell and Anthony

    © Davide Sorrenti

    K2 Journal

    © Davide Sorrenti

    Popcorn – Jaime

    © Davide Sorrenti

    AG: But he also loved the “broken” poses. Not to pose the subject but to break, in fact, the pose is an approach at the base of an aesthetic very popular today. Only that Davide adopted it in the 1990s.

    FS: When he drew he behaved quite similarly. He did his work in a quarter of an hour at the most. He sat at the table and, after a few minutes, “Finished!” Moreover, his father was a painter, and his brothers also painted. The photos of Vanina, in effect, recall paintings.

    Frankie Sleeping

    © Davide Sorrenti

    Seamless Red – Nikki

    © Davide Sorrenti

    Damn – Nikki

    © Davide Sorrenti

    AG: Leaving aside the usual cliché of the cursed artist, how do you explain so much media interest in the story of Davide?

    FS: You have to consider that it marked the end of an era. I read in a book that the death of Davide Sorrenti ended the period of Heroin Chic. Well said! The curious thing is that many of the photos attributed to Davide were not even his! Instead, there was one, called The Destruction of the Masses, that Davide had shot before he started using drugs. It was a photograph he had taken with Jaime and Vanina, from which the idea had started, which was to make a shot that showed boys tormented by heroin, with Kurt Cobain posters on the walls and that sort of thing. ..

    AG: But at the time Jaime was already doing heroin …

    FS: Yes, but it wasn't the drugs that kept them together. They loved each other very much at that time. She was the one who alerted me when Davide tried heroin for the first time, and the two of them always quarreled when he noticed that she had drugged herself. Throughout his life, Davide will have used heroin no more than five times, in two of which he ended up in hospital and the doctors told him: “You don't even have to look at this stuff!” I remember I was at the hospital, I was crying and he said to me: “Mom, you have no idea what it is like, I don't have any pain”. Then I asked him: “But do you want to die?” And he: “No, I don't want to die, okay?” His closest friends did not use heroin and were very worried about him. It is no coincidence that he died at the home of a person who was not part of his group.

    Jaime and Davide Selfie in Cali

    © Davide Sorrenti

    Jaime and Davide in Omaha

    © Davide Sorrenti

    Jaime Nude

    © Davide Sorrenti

    AG: There is an important thing that you had the courage to say, which is that it was also thanks to Davide and his premature death if we seriously questioned the power of fashion photography and a certain way of using it.

    FS: At that time, there were two very distinct aesthetics in the fashion image. A yes a bit “tense”, but more youthful and realistic than the 1980s, and another decidedly unkempt, where the make-up underlined the bags under the eyes and the models had their eyes turned off. What was scandalous of that period was the fact that in the fashion world these girls were allowed to take drugs as long as they were able to pose for the shootings. Do you have any idea how many I have sent home because I realized they were made? Once, in Los Angeles, during a service, I ask one of these: “Can you know what you got?” And she: “Only a sleeping pill on the plane”. Then I say to her: “Listen, darling, this is not about sleeping pills, this is heroin. Now let's call your agency. ” She started crying, and I told her: “You don't have to cry. You must save yourself “. Then the mother came to Los Angeles to pick her up, and now she is a fabulous woman, lives in London and already has three children.

    AG: The fact is that it was difficult to realize what was being done. Then it was completely normal …

    FS: Yes. Consider that the agencies' bookers were all in their twenties: a model asked for cocaine and they gave it to her. They were just boys, after all, and behaved as such.

    AG: But fashion photography is also a mirror of what happens in society. In fact, the 90s were just that.

    FS: Yes. But I brought this problem to everyone's attention, from CNN to John Casablanca, to Calvin Klein. “We are adults,” I told them, “and we must behave responsibly. It is one thing to show a woman who kisses another: this is a positive message against sexual prejudices. It is quite another thing to use drugs to sell clothes. This no!”. And the best thing is that Davide really helped change this situation. When he died, I received letters from all over the world, from Ireland, from England, from Germany, from France and, yes, also from Italy. Boys who used drugs and who, having known his story, had decided to quit. The tragedy of David had made them understand that they were not immortal, it had been the stimulus to say enough. It was puzzling to me to find out how many people knew this story, how much the young people around the world were impressed, and I realized that, although I was devastated by pain, I had to do something. So, when Jaime came to my door and said, “You and I have to put an end to all this,” I replied, “Yes, we have to do it, even if it cost me my career.” And we did it. I think I can actually say that we have saved so many young people. And this is the really important thing for me. What matters is not who you are in history, but what you do.

    AG: I think about how you became a fashion photographer, single mom, from Naples to New York. When you return to the Big Apple, David is five …

    FS: At the beginning, for Davide it was a shock to leave Italy, with our comfortable life, the beautiful house, the friends, to suddenly find ourselves in a one-bedroom apartment. He was a particular type, unconventional, he spoke using a gang jargon … He was the opposite of his sister and brother, who were two very nice boys. All three of them went to Grenoble, a French school. People marveled at Davide, a “homeboy” who loved art, played golf, skateboarded, loved opera and sang La Traviata in the shower. He had a fabulous voice … Since he was a child, Davide had something that fascinated people. Once, while we were attending a fashion show in Paris, he suddenly asked me: “Who is that beautiful girl in front of you?” I look for this girl, but the youngest woman I see is Franca Sozzani. Then I ask him which girl he is talking about, and he: “Of the one with long blond hair.” When I explain to him that the girl in question is Franca Sozzani, Davide exclaims: “How beautiful she is! I want to photograph it ”. Franca understood that we were talking about her and made a sign to Davide to go and sit in the seat next to him. That same evening, Davide and I went to a Chinese restaurant for dinner and here we met again Franca, who was with Helmut Newton. She greeted me and then asked David if he wanted to go and sit at his table. He accepted, he stayed with them for a while and then, suddenly, he announced: “Now I have to go back to my mother”. He has always been a special person. First I said it was a real Neapolitan street urchin, but I wasn't referring to today's street urchins. It meant more to a character from the 40s or 50s, as seen in the old De Sica films. Although he became an American, when he returned to Naples he talked to everyone in the street, which he also did in New York. It was all a “Hey, how you doing?” He was always cheerful. He remained small in stature until he was nineteen, then they gave him a hormone-based treatment to help him with thalassemia, and when he died he was taller than me, but for most of his life he was always shorter than his friends. But he had a very strong charisma, and I never ceased to amaze me by hearing him say what to do or not do to boys who were even a meter taller than him. In New York I had a huge loft and, although Mario already lived on his own, it was always crowded because every day Vanina and Davide took me home, between the two of them, at least fifteen people. If anyone had any problematic parents, Davide came to me and said: “His dad beat him. Can he come and stay with us? ” I always answered him yes, because I am a mother of the old Italian school. I am very proud to be a Neapolitan.

    AG: Today Gray and Arsun have more or less the age of David …

    FS: You have your eyes and also your personality. And if David's face had not shown the signs of the disease, they would have looked very much alike. She even has her character, a little bit sweet and a bit grumpy.

    AG: About David, everything has been said and written, which makes it particularly important, in my opinion, what you are doing now, or recovering the truth about him.

    FS: And his dignity.

    AG: Yes, because he was not a heroin addict, he was a boy with thalassemia who, because of his illness, had a much lower tolerance rate for drugs than a healthy person.

    FS: Exactly. Yes, it's true, he smoked a lot of marijuana, he practically always smoked, but it was a remedy against pain, he didn't do it to be revved up. Moreover, his case has contributed to finally bringing to light, in Italy, the problem of thalassemia. Despite the fact that today ten percent of Italians are healthy carriers of this disease, still in the 70s nobody talked about it. The problem was that the examination to diagnose it cost too much, and so those who governed were silent on the subject. I even did a sit-in in Naples, in front of the Municipality, together with many thalassemic friends and children. In our case, the healthy carrier in the family was my biological father, whom I had not known. When Davide got sick, just one year, no one in Naples diagnosed him with thalassemia. The doctor simply told me: “Madam, take your son home and let him die in peace.” But I phoned a nurse I had met in Genoa and she managed to get a Lufthansa plane to make an unplanned stop in Naples and take me and Davide to Genoa. Once there, as soon as they got into the ambulance, they told me: “This child has thalassemia, he is dying.” I was only twenty-six, and I spent the next two terrible weeks trying desperately to keep that child alive. But all the suffering I faced with David made me stronger. In these cases, after all, you have no choice.

    AG: The last image of the book shows a lady with a fish in her hand. Was it chosen for a particular reason?

    FS: It was the last photo of his film, taken before his death. And then to the origins of this image there is a beautiful story. We were in Mexico and were about to return to New York. Think, he died on February 3rd, and on February 2nd we were running so as not to miss the plane. I remember we were on the beach and I said to him: “Davide, you have to get out of the water!” He turns and looks at me: the water on his body shone in the sunlight, and suddenly I felt a sensation of sadness. I told him to get out of the water and he obeyed. In that, a particularly high wave arrived, which overwhelmed some large fish. One ended up on the shoreline and David picked it up. “Throw it in the water and let's go!”, I tell him. And he: “No. There is that lady, the peasant woman down there, who wanted to take one and failed. Let me give it to you. ” He went to that woman and, after giving her the fish, he asked her if he could photograph her. The next day it was all over. That picture had been his farewell letter.

    The Fish – taken from Mexico two days before his passing.

    © Davide Sorrenti

    Text and interview – Alessia Glaviano

    Interview Transcript – Francesca Viganò

    Edit interview – Davide Bussi

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