Mario Sorrenti is one of the biggest names in fashion photography, if not the biggest.
If you don’t know who he is, you probably don’t care so much about fashion—which is fine, but maybe you should start caring because those pants look like shit. Just sayin’. So a small handful of you might not know Mario, but you’d know his work for sure. His most famous contribution would have to be the photo he took of Kate Moss for CK Obsession. You’ve seen it. It’s an incredible image. And as much as we hate saying it was an industry ‘game-changer’, that’s precisely what it was, and it was by no means Mario’s last. For our fiftieth issue we managed to whisk the esteemed Mr Sorrenti away from his hectic work schedule to have a chat about his life, his career and shredding the Brooklyn Banks.
I was hoping we could talk quickly about your background, for any of the kids who don’t know who you are. I know everyone knows who you are in fashion…
Yeah, totally. Absolutely. Where do you want to start?
I think start from moving to New York—was that ’80 or ’81?
I moved to New York in 1980, yeah.
And where was the first place you lived?
I was really young then, ten years old. I moved to New York with my mother, my brother and my sister, and for the first six months we lived at a friend’s house. Then my mum found a sweet little apartment in Gramercy Park, on 20th and 3rd, and we lived there for a couple of years. And then in maybe ’83 or ’84 we moved to 16th Street and 3rd Avenue and we stayed in that neighbourhood till I was eighteen or nineteen years old.
What was the city like when you first got here? Do you remember much about it?
Yeah, it was very cool. It was a different city than today, that’s for sure. It was more dangerous than it is today. I remember growing up in New York and being told by my mum and everybody to always be aware of who’s behind you and don’t look anybody in the eye on the street. It was a very intense city; there was a lot of crime, and drugs and violence and stuff. I came from Naples, which, I guess, is not the safest city in the world, so you know, I wasn’t that bothered by it. There was a lot of scrapping. One of the first things after coming to New York was going to school and then getting in fights, making friends, writing graffiti. Some of my first really close friends were kids who were breakdancers and graffiti writers; I went straight into that culture and slowly got really heavily into skateboarding. I worked at a skate shop for some years and stuff…
I heard you skated. So did you skate the Banks and stuff? Where did you skate back then?
Yeah, we skated the Brooklyn Bridge Banks; that was a big spot we used to skate all the time. And back then Tribeca was desolate, it was empty, and so was SoHo—it’s not the SoHo you know today. You used to be able to skate through SoHo and it was just empty warehouses. We used to skate around there, write graffiti everywhere, skate the Banks, skate down around Wall Street and stuff. Washington Square Park was the big hangout; there was a very cool skate shop on 6th Avenue… The first shop I remember was called Dream Wheels, close to Washington Square Park, and then there was another one called Soho Skates that was on Spring and 6th Avenue. And there was an abandoned gas station where we built a quarter-pipe, and we’d just skate there all day long.
Which shop did you work at?
Were you, like, gripping boards and stuff?
Yeah! We’d be putting together decks and stuff, the usual. Selling decks, putting them together and shit.
Wow, that’s a trip. I heard that you skated, but I didn’t know you were working at the shop. That’s pretty cool.
I used to compete a little bit, too, because I used to skate for the shop. I used to go around with the team and skate a few different competitions. Actually I placed once; there was the first New York City competition and I placed first in my age group. I think I was fifteen years old at the time.
What were your tricks?
My big trick was a giant ollie off a quarter-pipe, like a flyaway ramp. I’d just kind of pop a huge ollie and grab the nose and stuff. I was very little at the time, and skinny, and I used to go pretty big so they looked impressive.
You have two kids, right? I have a boy and a girl. And do they skate?
My son skates, he skates a lot. My daughter skates a little bit, but not seriously. My son skates every single day.
Chip off the ol’ block. Yeah.
So everyone besides your dad is a photographer. How does that work? Do you give each other criticism and stuff? Do you keep tabs on your sister’s photos? Or does your mum ring you up and go, ‘Hey, Mario, I saw those photos—they’re cool’?
Yeah, totally. We’re very close as a family. I love my sister’s photographs and I think she’s got an amazing sensibility; I think it’s totally different from mine. She helps me edit my pictures all the time, and she comments on my work all the time. I help her with her stuff, too. We share ideas and are kind of helping each other out constantly. My mum used to take pictures; she doesn’t take pictures that much anymore. Actually, I don’t think she’s taken a picture in over ten years.
Who were your guys when you started shooting? Who did you look up to?
It’s funny—when I first started taking pictures I had no interest in doing fashion photography. I was going to school for fine art—studying painting and sculpture—and I was introduced to photography by a friend who was in school. The photographers I was introduced to, who I was just totally blown away by, were, like, Larry Clark and Mapplethorpe, Robert Frank and Sally Mann; those were the first books that I was interested in, the first photography that I was introduced to. And one of my friends was kind of a documentary photographer, so she would always show me documentary work and talk to me about the ethics of documentary photography, and then slowly, because my mum was in fashion and I was doing a little bit of modelling, I started looking at fashion photography in a totally different way. Because I was well aware of fashion photography but I’d never had any interest in it until I started picking up the camera, and then slowly I was like, ‘Oh wow, I like Bruce Weber’s pictures and I like what Steven Meisel is doing.’ Slowly I started paying attention to fashion photography and those guys and what they were doing, and I thought it was pretty remarkable. I started taking pictures when I was eighteen and I didn’t start working professionally till I was at the end of twenty, twenty-one years old.
That’s pretty young, though, right?
Yeah, I was very young. I might have actually been twenty years old, I think.
Yeah. Then I started looking at Avedon and Irving Penn. I loved Irving Penn, I thought Irving Penn was my fashion hero—he still is, in a way; I still have an incredible passion for Penn’s images. I actually had done some modelling for Bruce Weber, so I ended up meeting him and he was such an incredible individual, and very inspiring and very sweet and also very supportive. I would show him my photographs and he would be very kind and supportive and egg me on to do more and push me and say, ‘Do more pictures of your friends, they’re great, keep going,’ and that was a very special… He was a very special person.
So you started really young, and the [Calvin Klein] Obsession shoot you did with Kate in ’93—you were only twenty-four years old. And that was like your big break, right?
You know what, I think we did those pictures in ’92. I’m sure we shot them in ’92 and they probably didn’t come out till ’93. I had already started working by the time I shot Obsession, and I already had a contract with Harper’s Bazaar to do six fashion stories a year for them and stuff. The first big shoot I did was for The Face and then I did stuff for, like, English Elle and I was working in England so it was a lot of English magazines. Then I got a contract for Harper’s Bazaar, and it was a lot of editorial and stuff and then I was doing Dolce & Gabbana and then the Obsession thing happened. It was pretty early on, though, yeah. I was twenty-two, twenty-three years old.
Were you worried because you reached such success at such a young age? Were you ever like, ‘When’s the wave going to crash?’
No. When you’re young like that and you’re just going for it—I had so much energy and I was like…
I really felt invincible. And if I wasn’t taking pictures I was involved in some art project. It felt like I worked all the time, but I really only worked a quarter of the amount I work today. Back then we used to shoot film, so we did one or two jobs a month.
How many jobs do you do in a month now?
I mean, sometimes we do ten to fifteen jobs a month, twenty jobs a month.
It’s full-on. I mean, it depends on the season; right now, because all the fashion shows are going on, it’s pretty slow. I’m still shooting once or twice a week, but as soon as the shows are done I’ll be back on with advertising and editorial. The wheels will get into motion.
Has having a family changed the way you work?
Yeah, it changed a lot. It’s definitely brought me down to earth a little. I have to be much more organised and make time for my family, find the time for the work, family, vacation, and balance it all out. So yeah, it’s had a huge impact on me.
Do your kids think you’re cool?
Sometimes they think I’m cool, sometimes they think I’m not. Sometimes I get invited to something, sometimes I don’t. It depends what they feel like.
Did you just say sometimes you get invited to something and sometimes you don’t?
Yeah. My son also plays music, right, and sometimes he invites me to one of his shows and sometimes he says no.
I’m super close with the kids and we spend a lot of time together. We spend a lot of time working together—not working but being creative, making music, art, photography, you know. We go travelling; we actually just got back from India for ten days. We’re very close as a family.
Do you ever get a bit nervous when you’re shooting people? Like, ‘Holy shit, Keith Richards is coming into the studio today.’ Do you ever get that or you’re just, like, cool?
No way! I always get nervous, no matter who I’m shooting. I always get little butterflies in my stomach before I’m about to shoot somebody. I mean, we just photographed Jennifer Lawrence, and I’ve actually worked with her before, but I was still a little anxious about it. Of course Keith Richards was a really big deal. I always get a little nervous about a portrait of an artist, a movie star, or whoever. It’s easier with models because there is always a very clear plan, there is a very set-out structure that everybody follows. But when you’re photographing an actor or an artist or something, you don’t really know what’s going to happen—you could meet that person and they could be great and really fantastic, or you could meet that person and they could be not into it and give you five minutes, and you’re scrambling trying to get something in five minutes.
Which young photographers are you excited about? Who do you dig who’s just coming up?
Oh wow, let me think. There’s a young photographer I really like, his name’s Tyrone Lebon. He’s a friend; I’ve known this kid since he was five years old. His father’s an artist and a photographer and we used to live in London together. In the last couple of years Tyrone, Mark’s son, has become a photographer in his own right and he’s doing really great work. It’s really exciting. I think he’s done the new Calvin Klein campaigns and they’re really great. But to be honest with you, I don’t look around that much. I’m not looking at magazines all the time.
Is that a deliberate thing?
I just don’t have that much interest, if I’m honest with you. I look at books and I look at films a lot, I listen to music a lot. I’m on Instagram. I’m more interested in the weird, underground stuff. I don’t see that much stuff in fashion that I’m like, ‘Aw wow, that’s really cool.’ I don’t know why. But I like Tyrone’s pictures, and there are a couple of young kids—I’m not good with names—who are his contemporaries and are in the same group, and they are taking interesting pictures.
Okay, very last question: what advice would you give a young photographer just starting out?
I would probably give the same best advice that I got when I was young. I remember I went to meet David Bradshaw, who was the fashion editor of Arena magazine, and I was twenty years old and he called me in to show him my work and I didn’t even have a portfolio at the time, so I just went in and showed him my pictures and he’s like, ‘So what do you want to do?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t really know, I just want to take pictures.’ And he said, ‘Well, when you have an idea and you figure it out, you can come back.’ From that day on I realised if you’re going to go and see somebody, or meet somebody at a magazine or for some advertising campaign or something, you should always go with an idea. Don’t ever go unprepared, anywhere. Always be ready.