In 1993, a picture of his naked girlfriend was all it took to launch then 21-year-old Mario Sorrenti’s explosive career in fashion photography. Of course, it helped that his girlfriend was Kate Moss, and that the piercing image was for Calvin Klein’s iconic Obsession campaign. Now, almost 20 years later, Sorrenti’s bold, sensual images frequent Vogue, Vanity Fair, Interview, and W, for whom he recently shot a cover with the Fanning sisters. The Italian-born, New York-raised photographer is famed for his ability to capture the vulnerable beauty of nude models with his lens. So it’s no surprise that Sorrenti, who now lives in New York with his wife, Mary Frey, and two children, was tapped to shoot the 2012 Pirelli calendar.
Working as a model in his youth, Sorrenti, whose Mediterranean good looks often rival those of his subjects, spent his fair share of time posing (sometimes nude, sometimes not) for the cameras of Richard Avedon, Bruce Weber, and Steven Meisel. Perhaps these experiences are what help him to connect with the models he photographs. Although, he admits, he’s not sure exactly how it happens, Sorrenti forges an intimate bond with his subjects; he creates an ease on set that translates into raw intensity on the page. This is precisely what we see in the Pirelli calendar, which, released Dec. 6, the photographer titled “Swoon.”
Inaugurated in 1964, the seductive calendar is only gifted to an exclusive list of celebrities and Pirelli’s VIPs. In previous years, its pages, always graced by scantily clad (if that) supermodels and starlets, have been snapped by greats like Hans Feurer, Peter Lindberg, Mario Testino and Karl Lagerfeld. Needless to say, that’s a pretty intimidating list of predecessors. But shooting the likes of Isabeli Fontana, Natasha Poly and yes, Kate Moss, in the ethereal wilderness of Corsica, Sorrenti—who is, funnily enough, the first Italian photographer ever to shoot the calendar—more than held his own. Milla Jovovich, Lara Stone, and Joan Smalls become one with the landscape as they perch beneath the soft shadows of branches or arch across jagged cliffs. Clothed in nothing but their own skin and flecks of sunlight, each of Sorrenti’s 12 sirens radiate an empowered elegance and pure sexuality. Here, the mega-photographer talks to Interview about playing in the nude, the calendar, and his “very personal” new project.
KATHARINE ZARRELLA: What do you feel separates your work from that of other photographers? What are you all about?
MARIO SORRENTI: I don’t know! [laughs] Those are questions that you should ask other people. I mean, I guess my work is described a lot of the time as very sensual and sexy. When I take a picture, I’m very focused on trying to discover something about a person. Or about an idea. I try to be quite successful at it.
ZARRELLA: Now, you were born in Italy and grew up in New York. Considering the idea of a New York woman and the idea of an Italian woman are both very strong in different ways, how do you feel that has influenced your perspective?
SORRENTI: Good question. They’re very different. I try not to let the material aspects of different cultures distract me from getting to the essence of the person I’m photographing. Whether it’s a man or a woman. Wherever they’re from, I try not to let social status or cultural background affect me or affect the person. I strip all those things away to get down to the essence of the human being, the person, the woman and what her beauty may be, whether it’s sexuality, whether it’s sadness or a pain or a smile or happiness. I focus on and tune into whatever it may be that seems to be quite powerful in that person at the moment. The essential part of who they are as a person, that’s what I focus on. Even when I’m doing a fashion picture, I still try and go beyond the clothes or beyond the handbag to reach the person.
ZARRELLA: How do you achieve that? Would you say you have a method or do you think you have a natural connection with your subjects?
SORRENTI: It’s not a method. It’s just a relationship. It’s a communication that’s very natural. We talk about it. I talk about the things that are not important to me in the photograph and the things that I would like to focus on. I try to make the subject very comfortable so they’re able to feel at ease and reveal themselves and so on. There has to be some trust on both ends. I think somehow the subject comes to trust me or I need to win that trust. I don’t know how it happens. I just direct them slowly away from the things that might be making them nervous or whatever might be in our way at the moment.
ZARRELLA: Obviously you’re famous for your nudes. Do you remember the first time you saw a naked woman?
SORRENTI: To be honest with you, when I was young, my mother and my father were hippies and we grew up naked. We’d spend most of our summers running around naked on the beach. Until I was 9, 10 years old, I remember just being naked on the beach and stuff. I’ve always been surrounded by nudity. I’ve never had a problem with it.
ZARRELLA: Speaking of your childhood, you began documenting your life through photographs when you were young. Can you tell me a bit about that?
SORRENTI: I started taking pictures when I was 18 and basically, the first thing that I started to do was to photograph the people who were around me. I was so obsessed with photography at the time that I carried a camera with me everywhere, 24 hours a day. I just took thousands and thousands of pictures of everybody around me—friends, girlfriends, whatever was happening, I always had my camera on me. I did that until about 10 years ago, and then I just stopped. I had kids and there seemed to be no more time, and I stopped carrying a camera around.
ZARRELLA: Would you ever pick that up again?
SORRENTI: Yeah. I think about it all the time. Because when I’m walking down the street, I see something, or when I’m in an elevator or somewhere, I always see these incredible things happening, these moments, these photographs, and I’m always like, “Damn, I’ve got to start carrying my camera around with me again.” I should do something that’s about these moments that you see randomly when you’re walking around. So yeah, I would like to do that again.
ZARRELLA: The list of photographers who have shot the Pirelli calendar is quite prestigious. And it includes Bruce Weber, who you’ve noted is one of your mentors. What was your reaction when you learned you’d be shooting the calendar?
SORRENTI: I was super excited, and the funny thing is that it’s been a couple of years in the making. They contacted me a few times before this and it didn’t end up happening. And I was quite let down when it didn’t happen. And when they said, “Oh, we’d like to meet again, we’d like to talk again,” I was like, “Oh, OK. One more time.” And then when they decided to go with me, I was super excited.
ZARRELLA: Do you know what happened the first few times, or was it just not in the stars?
SORRENTI: I guess so. Maybe they didn’t feel at the time that what I wanted to do was appropriate for them. I don’t know what it might have been. I have no idea.
ZARRELLA: You were recently quoted as saying that you didn’t want the calendar’s images to be sexy. How, in your opinion, do you make a gaggle of naked supermodels not appear sexy?
SORRENTI: It’s funny, because I’ve realized that that’s a very personal view. A lot of people have come up to me and said that the images are very sexy. When I was taking the photographs, I realized that I could do something really over-the-top, something that really pushed the sexuality aspect of the shoot. I was going to use clothes to heighten [the sexuality] even more by not revealing so much, or wetting the clothes and doing all that stuff. I started doing that the first day and then as the day went on we said, okay, let’s just try doing some nudes and we took all the clothes away and focused on the body. Sometimes it was very sculptural. Sometimes it was just very simple. I didn’t want to focus on the obvious sexuality of the woman. I was more interested in the anatomy and the beauty of the figure and shape; if the muscles were tensing or something like that. I wanted to let [the photographs] be something that came from the model in her own way as well. I didn’t want to take the models too much out of their own skin. I realized that I wanted to create a marriage between who the person was, the nature, the beauty in the figure, and how the models sat or posed themselves. And as the six days progressed, I slowly started getting closer and closer to that.
ZARRELLA: There’s a beautiful delicacy and subtlety to the images. Do you think that working in a natural environment helped you achieve that?
SORRENTI: Absolutely. I wanted the models to be influenced by their environment. I wanted that serenity to be shared. And I wanted there to be a marriage between the beauty of the landscape and the models’ beauty.
ZARRELLA: You posed nude during your time as a model. What was that like, and do you feel that having had that experience helps you connect with your subjects?
SORRENTI: Like I said, I’ve always been very comfortable being nude. I’ve done a lot of self-portraits that are nude, and I’ve posed nude for other photographers. Even when I was modeling, I loved the whole creative process and I really enjoyed being part of an artist’s creative process. I could understand what they were trying to do, and what they were trying to achieve with the photographs and I really enjoyed being part of that. I worked with photographers like Bruce Weber, Steven Meisel, and Richard Avedon when I was a model and I was really young. I was only 18 or 19 years old. And it made me understand how incredible these talented artists were and it inspired me. I remembered thinking to myself, “Wow, will I ever be able to have a kind of effect on the subject where they want to become part of my work so completely?”
ZARRELLA: How do you make your models feel so comfortable? There’s that image of you shooting Milla Jovovich for the calendar, and she’s so connected with you. It seems like a very powerful relationship.
SORRENTI: I know Milla very well. I went out with Milla for a couple years when I was 22, so the relationship between Milla and I is quite familiar. It’s easy to connect with somebody like Milla. And it’s easy to connect with Kate [Moss] because we’ve had relationships together before. But when I work with somebody that I haven’t worked with before, like Margareth [Madè], I had never photographed her before, so I told everybody to leave and we started taking the photographs. I think the subject senses what I’m trying to achieve. I think they know what I’m trying to get out of them and once they understand that, they understand that I’m not trying to take advantage of them or to rob them of anything, but that I’m just trying to capture something quite beautiful, something that they’re going to be happy with. I don’t want to upset anybody with the photographs. I don’t want the models to feel misunderstood, and I don’t want them to do anything that they don’t want to do. It seems like [the models] naturally let go of their defenses. They understand the photographs and they want to be a part of them and to try and make them better. With Margareth, we started with clothes and then she realized what I was looking for and she said, “You know what, I feel totally comfortable. I don’t need to wear the dress.” And it was great. I think [the models] feel better about the photographs of themselves when they’re completely in the photograph instead of holding back.
ZARRELLA: They’ve got to let loose.
SORRENTI: Yeah. It just becomes a great experience for them. Just as it’s a great experience for me to take the pictures.
ZARRELLA: Why did you choose to shoot these particular models and actresses for the calendar? And how do you choose your subjects in general?
SORRENTI: It’s instinctive. I meet somebody and there’s something about that person that I find attractive. I always like to meet the people I’m going to photograph. I need to have a conversation. I need to feel a vibe. I need to see what’s going on in the person. I’m not just interested in physical beauty. I really need a personality.
ZARRELLA: Who do you feel has had the biggest impact on your career and your development as a photographer?
SORRENTI: I think it’s definitely been Kate Moss. She’s had the biggest impact on my career.
ZARRELLA: Why Kate Moss?
SORRENTI: I think it’s… I don’t know why. I think it’s because we went out when we were kids, and we were able to do all those pictures for Calvin Klein that were super successful and that sort of launched me as a photographer. That was the beginning, and it set a standard of what could be achieved as far as success and beauty in my photographs.
ZARRELLA: Where do you go for inspiration? Is there anything that constantly inspires you?
SORRENTI: I watch films a lot. I buy a ton of photography books and art books. I get excited by everything around me, from things that I see on the street to [art] exhibitions. I work all the time and I’m doing tons and tons of pictures a day and sometimes I get to a point where I’m like, “Fuck. I’m drained. I’m really wiped out. I don’t know what the hell to do.” And I’ll just go to a museum and I get inspired. My batteries get recharged. I want to go out and do something and create something again.
ZARRELLA: What’s recharged your batteries lately?
SORRENTI: Well I went to see an incredible, mind-blowing Gerhard Richter show at the Tate Modern in London, and it really blew me away. I love things that expand our consciousness of what we know in imagery and how to look at things. And that show did that for me. Even though I knew a lot of the work already, just seeing it there on the walls made me realize that there are so many incredible ways to have a visual conversation. It’s so inspiring.
ZARRELLA: Can you tell me about one of your most memorable sittings?
SORRENTI: I can tell you about a great evening when I was shooting Natasha Poly for Pirelli. I love Natasha. She’s amazing and she’s always been so incredibly giving. The whole day, we did so many beautiful pictures and we went into the evening, into the dusk and everybody was super happy. When we were done taking photographs, we made a big fire on the beach and we all were drinking some beers and wine and hanging out and this huge full moon started to rise over the mountains and the ocean. It was just so beautiful. And we started taking pictures again. It was such a beautiful night and the light from the fire was incredible.
ZARRELLA: Did you use any of those images for the calendar or were they personal pictures?
SORRENTI: I didn’t use any for the calendar because they didn’t really fit with what we were doing, but they’re amazing pictures. They’re great. And I’ll probably use them one day for something.
ZARRELLA: What did you hope to achieve through this project, and do you think that you got there?
SORRENTI: I was just trying to do the best job that I could. I think when you’re in that moment and you’re given something, you say “Okay, what can I do with this?” And I just tried to do the best that I could and hopefully people enjoy it. That’s the only thing that I can really hope is that people enjoy the photographs as much as we enjoyed making them.
ZARRELLA: Do you have any upcoming projects that you can share with us?
SORRENTI: I’m working on a book of a collection of Polaroids from the last 15 years, ranging from fashion work to family stuff. I think it’s supposed to come out in the spring. It definitely goes a lot behind the scenes. It’s 15 years of my life, so [all the images are] powerful to me. It’s very personal.