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Sarah Moon on the Border
By Pat Booth

SARAH MOON lives and works in Paris. Although she spent much of her early life in England and went to an English public school, there is no doubt that she is utterly French. After a happy childhood, she drifted into modelling at the age of nineteen and began taking intimate pictures of her fellow models during the long waiting periods in studios and dressing rooms. In this way her work came to the attention of the progressive 1960s fashion world and avant-garde fashion editors such as Caroline Baker, Meriel McCooey and Molly Parkin and innovative publications like Nova and the Sunday Times Magazine. In 1968, she began her long association with the fashion house Maison Cacharel and her uniquely individual style - dreamy, sensuous, romantic and impressionistic - became widely recognised. By 1972, she had photographed the prestigious Pirelli calendar.

Although both her outward appearance and her work suggest a shy and introverted personality, Sarah Moon has great tenacity and determination. Her immediately recognisable technique and composition, and her unique ability to capture mood and drama in a still photograph, have assured place amongst the most important and innovative fashion photographers of her generation. Although she later became successfully involved in the making of television commercials and feature films (which she also scripted) at the time of this dialogue, I talked with her primarily about her photographic techniques and methods of working, and the creation of the images that had made her famous.

How did you get into photography?
It all started with modelling, and even that was a coincidence. Someone asked me if I would pose for pictures and, as I had nothing else to do at the time, I agreed. I was nineteen and I was in the street when I met Susan Archer, a model-turned photographer. She was the first to photograph me. At the time I was married to a painter and he thought modelling would be a good way of life for me, so I took it up. For myself, I had no strong feelings about taking up a career in modelling. I knew nothing about that world.

Photography came later. At first I took photographs of models hanging round the studio waiting, or in the dressing rooms. Then some of the girls needed photos for their portfolios. Fashion photography was very exciting in the late 1960s. I was already making a living as a model and so I could accept or refuse work, pick and choose. I started in England where everything was happening with magazines like Nova, and people like Molly Parkin were very creative. People would see my pictures and say: OK, I’ll give you five pages. Do what you like.

From the very early days you had a very distinctive style.
You know, I feel that that is my limitation, but at the same time I think that one can only have so many visions. I was so lucky to have the freedom to feel and to capture what I felt. It’s not until you put one step in front of the other that you begin. You don’t know what you want to do or achieve until you start to work and to experiment. So many photographers have had their originality crushed by working for people who dictated their style and gave them too little freedom to develop and discover their own path. I found my way but at first, I was walking in the dark and I was lucky to be allowed to do so. Even now, I like to hear people discussing my photographs, as I find it sheds light on what I am trying to do. I make discoveries about my own work and motivation from such comments.

How do you set about taking a picture?
Today my technique is still to set the scene, to get the mood and the atmosphere right and then to wait and see what happens, hoping for the accident that will provide the correct moment to expose the film. To take an example - the picture that I call Charlie Girl - which I did for Nova. For this shoot I did the casting in London. I just couldn’t find the right child and so Caroline Baker, the Fashion Editor, and I went down to Brighton anyway with the model. All of a sudden, when I was walking down the beach, my luck changed and I saw these two children coming towards me with their dog. Quite naturally they evoked the image that I captured. The shot of the girl and the boy on the pier was a lucky accident, not pre-conceived at all. I was wandering about above them and when I looked down, I saw the girl and the child talking to each other beneath me. That was the picture.

Another example is this one of the girl walking her dog along the tree-lined avenue (Suzanne aux Tuileries. Paris 1974). I love this picture. It’s my favourite. I was actually shooting another shot for a calendar at the time, but the model turned away at a break in the shooting and I shot this picture for myself.

Have you had any other happy accidents? They remind me of Ansel Adams’ remark about fortune favouring the prepared mind. You mentioned that the cat picture was an example of this.
Yes. Masks intrigue me and I had this idea about doing a picture of a man with a cat’s face (Two Girls and a ˜Cat”. England 1976). What I wanted here was the feeling of two women relating to a sick cat. I don’t quite know how the moment happened. I didn’t tell the two models that the cat was supposed to be sick. If you put people into situations, eventually they will respond to the mood. It’s just a question of waiting for the natural response. Actually the assignment was to show these two pullovers. This was a Vogue editorial rather than an advertising project and so it was enough merely to show the sweaters - I was not required to emphasise them. I love to do editorials because they are a good trampoline for one’s imagination. You can see the product in this photograph, but it’s not at all what the photograph is about. Of course sometimes there is no “accident”, and on other occasions, there are “accidents” that I don’t catch.

You mentioned that your distinctive style was also a limitation. Have you thought of extending your range?
I have thought about it, but something I have come to realize is that I never photograph reality. That’s a reason I could never do reportage. It’s not my thing - not my way of working or my vision. I could never go out into the street and take a photograph. Also, I would be incapable of photo-graphing somebody without their agreement. I can’t bear to be pushy, to intrude. People forget how cruel the camera can be - it seems often to reveal more than the naked eye. I’ve always been interested in fat people and old people, but I could not take advantage of them. So reportage would contravene my moral code, whereas fashion is perfect for me. It’s not so much the clothes, but the beauty of the shapes and colours that appeals to me. But I also think there’s a ceiling to fashion - and it’s a low one - you can bump your head against it. At the end of the day, the real purpose of fashion photography is to serve the client and sell the product. Everything that you as the photographer add to it by way of story and mood, is for yourself alone.

Making movies and your television advertising takes up a lot of time. Is this the way you want to go?
I worked a lot for Cacharel. It’s a wonderful challenge to create a mood in thirty seconds or a minute. It’s an exercise in condensation. I suppose, in some ways, I see my photographs as a single frame in a movie film. When you look at my photographs, you can’t escape the thought of what has gone before and of what will follow. They capture the moment and reveal a situation that has both echoes from the past and implications for the future. So in this way, making movies is a natural progression for me.

Can we talk a bit about your technique?
I have a very simple technique. I don’t work with flash. I use daylight and also use tungsten. When I don’t know something, I ask - either my assistant or another photographer. Luckily I have a lot of friends who are photographers. Things often go wrong. One should remember when looking at a collection of a photographer’s work that one is only seeing the successful images.

Do you prefer black-and-white to colour?
Yes. I like to shoot in colour only when I can choose the colours. Black-and-white is more dramatic, further removed from reality.

What colour film do you use?
For many years I used GAFF. It was sheer agony when they went bankrupt. Now I use high-speed colour film and push it to get grain. Actually now that I’m used to it, the effect is better, but I used GAFF for eight years. I like a lot of grain in my photographs and I don’t like them to be too sharp, although recently my work has changed a bit and the pictures are becoming more clear.

You use lighting to heighten the graininess of your photographs. What else?
Soft-focus filters, different diffusers, sometimes voiles. I have no hard and fast technique. It depends on the mood that I want to portray. I can’t say, I always do this, or that. Tri-X pushed and recording films are good for grain.

Do you usually work with the same lens?
I never use short lenses. I work a lot with a zoom and never know exactly the length that I’m using, but it’s usually 70mm, 80mm or even more. Sometimes I use a very long lens, but never wide-angle. One of the reasons I like a long lens is that it eliminates a lot of space. I have a problem with space – it’s very difficult for me to deal with it. If I used a wide-angle I would have all that extra space in my pictures and that’s just not my way of visualizing things. I suppose you could say that I see life a bit more cropped than other people! One of the advantages is that I never need to crop my pictures afterwards because I do it while I’m shooting. Of course, I feel that the photograph should dictate the choice of the lens rather than the other way around, and it depends very much on the location and the shape of the room. I hâve used a 400mm for outside shots when I wanted a special effect, but usually it’s around 100mm. I never go below 50mm. In my early days, it was the simpler the better. I used 35mm only - never large cameras. I worked with Nikon and Olympus. I especially liked a Nikon because it’s built like a tank and I could rely on it. I always use a tripod.

Which photographers have influenced you most?
Very few fashion photographers. Guy Bourdan is incredible. He can create something out of nothing and leave his own unique stamp on it.

Although you live in Paris you used an English printer. Why?
I've never done my own printing and Bill Rawlinson worked alone and never rushed things. It would take me some eight or nine hours to produce just one print of the quality that he made, and even then it wouldn’t be as good as his.