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Sarah Moon: photography provides an opportunity for staging

an interview by Frank Horvat

Your photos are often criticized as too pretty, as if that prettiness was a formula, an easy way out.

Sarah Moon : I’m glad you raise the point. It is true that there was this appearance of preciousness, of cuteness, especially at the beginning. I was so seduced by seduction! Now, a whole period of my work seems far away from me, I no longer identify with it.

I didn’t mean that I dislike your older photos. Recently I leafed through your books with a group of young people who work with me. We took a sort of poll about the photos we liked most, and often our choice fell on the oldest, for instance the young woman on the path, with the little dog.

It’s among the ones that I don’t reject.

And the other young woman on a sort of grid, with a little girl who makes a gesture…

“Charlie Girl”, I don’t reject that one either. It’s a black and white photo. I believe that if I didn’t work in commercial photography, I would never work in color. It’s in black and white that I visualize.

But among our preferences there were also some color photos. The still life with fruits, for example.

The pears. But in that one color is thinned down, manipulated, kind of color without color. That one I like.

Still, you are one of the very few photographers who have found new ways to deal with color.

I don’t really like color. To make it work for me, I have to mess with it. I believe that the essence of photography is black and white. Color is but a deviance. Except when one works with very untrue colors, such as Polaroid, or as in certain photos by Paolo Roversi, where color is flattened, so that painting is no longer the reference.

You did, however, find some new solutions, at a time when many people were putting color film into their cameras, while still thinking in black and white (it happened to me) or believing they were doing color photography, when they were only letting themselves be seduced by whatever patch of violent color they found (that happened to me as well, and I’m not proud of it). You increased grain and used it as a kind of filter, to cut out some of the surplus of information recorded by your camera. It’s a great idea: as color film carries too much information to be organized into a harmonious whole, you lessen the information by introducing grain, so that you can deal with what’s left, in the same way you would deal with black and white.

It’s true that grain breaks down colors, like a filter. On the other hand, I am less and less interested in grain for my black and white work, I would rather get sharpness and texture.

Because black and white, by itself, acts like a filter. So grain becomes one filter too many.

Yes, an easy way out.

Besides, some of your black and white photos are perfectly sharp. I think of the young woman, with her back to the camera, wearing a polka dot dress and seated in front of a window. It was another one of our favorites.

Suzanne? Yes, I like that one, too. There are some that I like, of course. But there are many that I now find too cute, that annoy me.

Another issue that seems to preoccupy you is commercial work. You often insist that working on assignment is not necessarily an obstacle to creativity. I wouldn’t dream of contradicting you about this, but I wonder if that is the real problem. For me the problem lies not so much in the assignment, as in the staging. Can a photo be directed, like a movie? Is directing compatible with the essence of photography?

I’ve always felt that photography provides an opportunity for staging, for telling a story through images. What I aim at, is an image with a minimum of information and markers, that has no reference to a given time or place – but that nevertheless speaks to me, that evokes something which happened just before or may happen just after. I know that many people question this way of photographing, but why should there be only one sort of photography? I want to create images with elements of my choosing, narrative or evocative, beyond the document about that particular woman wearing that dress. I give myself a literary frame, I tell a story. It’s the only springboard I have found for taking a leap. On the other hand, I am interested in commercial photography because it provides me with a purpose. The agreement between client and photographer seems perfectly fair to me. They give me the opportunity to make images, on condition that I show their product in a favorable light. I get paid for doing it and am given the means to do it well. This submits me to a discipline, which is something I need, because for me it’s easier to do things when I find myself obliged to do them. To do them just for my pleasure would seem irrelevant.

I believe, just as you do, that a photo intended to sell a product can be just as interesting as any other one. But that’s not the point that worries me. What I am asking myself is whether a completely staged photo can still be interesting as a photo. Whether there is a threshold, beyond which staging no longer leaves space for the very essence of photography, which is opening a door to the unexpected. For me, this is the greatest problem with assignments. It seems to me that you, in your most successful photographs, allowed for such an opening. And I am sure that when you edit your slides or your contacts, the photo you choose is the one where the unexpected appears.

It is true that when I create a frame, a setting, I always expect that within that frame some accident or some surprise will come up. To seat someone on a chair, for example, can be the beginning of a photo, even though it may not mean much by itself. But if I say, possibly only to communicate with the model: “You sit on this chair, and you are waiting, as if you were on a platform at a railway station,” that may introduce the sense of an event, may help me to create the feeling of a situation. Perhaps it is only a device that I need for myself. But now I feel disturbed by what you say, by its expression of reluctance, as if for you the idea of staging is negative, a minus rather than a plus.

Yes and no. If I bring it up, it’s not to criticize you, though it is true that I want to pull your strings, just to get your reaction. If only because I had to defend myself on that same issue, facing the criticism of my friends at Magnum, who believed that photography had to be a document and a testimony. For many years they made me feel guilty for not sharing their belief or following their rules.

I used to feel faulted, too, by the “purists” of photography, who saw me as someone who had sold her soul to the devil, because I cashed in my creativity for money. Which they did too, obviously, since they sold their reporting, for less money but with the feeling that they were witnessing some reality. Whereas I only witness my fantasies, my way of seeing beauty in women, which of course is entirely personal, asocial and apparently superficial. Above all, I felt faulted by the little interest that they had for my photos, while I had so much for theirs.

Cartier-Bresson once said to me: “You must choose. It’s OK to witness reality, as we do, and it’s OK to stage, as Avedon does. But one shouldn’t combine the two.” I didn’t accept this, and possibly I was right, since it is precisely my photos of that period that seem interesting today, and precisely because of that ambiguity. But I would like to return to our starting point: you do still photography, but also film. In both cases, you allow a certain margin for the unexpected. Are the rules of the game identical? Does film allow as much margin? Or is there something different, something specific about the unexpected in a still photograph?

For me it’s the same. It’s always like a state of grace, like the appearance of something that I hadn’t foreseen, that surprises me and stops me. If I only did what I had in mind, there would be no emotion. It would be like keeping one’s eyes shut rather than open, like theorizing rather than seeing.

For me a good photo is one that cannot be repeated. I think of, in some of your photos, the hands of those young women and the way those hands relate to each other. “She caught it once” I say to myself while I look at them. “She couldn’t ever catch the same thing again.”

Because it wasn’t planned. When I imagine a situation, I don’t imagine the hands. For the one eyed cat with the two girls, what I had imagined was: “There is a sick man, and there are two women caring for him.” But the composition, the way in which they move in relation to him and to each other, this I decide later, as I shoot. And in those moments I forget the staged elements. But then: what exactly do you mean by “staging” ? The story? The way of telling it? The directing by the photographer? If what you mean is the directing, then every photo could be considered staged. When you say “don’t move!” you direct.

Staging, as I understand it at this moment, is putting in front of the lens what had been in the imagination, as a painter puts outlines and colors on a canvas. If photography is different from painting, it is to the degree to which it depends on the external, and, partly, the unpredictable.

Yes, like a ray of sunlight that makes everything break up, or an underexposure that hides what’s in the shadow… I agree. What you call “staging” is what I call “the frame”. To begin with, I choose a place, and that already is staging. I say, “I want the light to come through that window and this part of the set to remain in the shade,” because I have decided that in my photo it will be seven o’clock in the evening. But my other reason for staging this is to communicate with the models, with the make-up person, with the hair stylist, with all those people working with me.

And also, and this may be the main purpose, because you want the unexpected to arrive in a precise moment and place. You wouldn’t know what to do with an unexpected arriving just anyhow or from anywhere. That wouldn’t help you, it would only lead to confusion. So you set limits, create openings, prepare traps where you lay in wait and seize it when it appears.

If it appears. Sometimes it doesn’t, or it does but I miss it, or I think it does but I am mistaken. It did appear in the case of the woman with the little dog. That photo was for a calendar, it was to be the last image. I had said to the girl: “It’s the time you’re going home,” so there had been a deliberate staging and directing. But when you look at the photo, you don’t think of that, you only feel that something is happening, something that is expressed by her attitude, even though you don’t know anything about her. She could be very young or very old, she is without age, timeless.

But all of this could also be imagined by a painter. What a painter couldn’t imagine are the effects of light and shadow, the behavior of the dog, the coincidences between these accidents: that’s why a photo has be taken at a decisive moment. It all boils down to the decisive moment.

Yes, the moment that might or might not happen. The gift that doesn’t depend on us. The best we can do is to be ready – and that’s the hardest. All the efforts we invest, the intensity, the waiting, the hoping are not enough. Sometimes we work like mad, for hours, in vain, and then all of a sudden, in three minutes, at the right place, the right moment, from the right angle, a stroke of luck expresses what we wanted to say. In film, this can come through the acting, the editing or the music – in a way it’s much easier.

It’s another language.

As I’m talking with you, I realize there are many questions about photography that I have never asked myself. Perhaps I keep myself from asking them. At the beginning, there was a sort of drive in my quest, possibly because I didn’t know what I was looking for. Then, when my photos began to be accepted, I became aware of certain things, a little as in psychotherapy, where the analyst doesn’t give you explicit answers, but refers you back to what you have expressed, and that in turn changes your outlook.

And what did you become aware of?

Of my limitations. Ultimately we keep saying the same thing, even if we try to say it differently. Always the same song. Though in the beginning, I had the impression that each photo was a discovery.

I wonder if it’s really the same song. I know that this can be the problem with assignments, and also with success in the media. It’s success that keeps us singing the same song, the one they keep asking for. But is it really your only song? There may be other ones…

I believe so, too. But I don’t know where they are. If I knew, I would sing them. Sometimes I believe that I hear a note …

There is another sensitive point I would like to touch. One of the leaders in our poll was the photo of the little girl in the street, who appears to spin in a ray of light. We noticed it in one of the catalogues. However, in “Little Red Riding Hood” of which it is part, that photo didn’t particularly strike me. Perhaps because I don’t care so much for this little book…

What is it you do not like about it?

The very fact of the sequence. I cannot look at the sequence without imagining Sarah staging it – so there is no mystery left. Whereas in front of the single photo I wonder: “Who is this little girl? How did Sarah meet her? What happened?”

It is true that from all these narrative series, intended to appear on three of four magazine spreads, I only show one image in my exhibitions or my books. As if I had only worked for that photo. What bothers you about a series? Is it the variation on a theme?

It’s that it takes us backstage.

And possibly the fact that I tell a story with a beginning and an end, instead of letting each image, by itself, suggest a beginning and an end. Repetition gives a key, and with that key, one no longer feels the same curiosity. I agree with that. Very often I say to myself: “I would like to make a photo where nothing happens.” My dream would be to achieve that purity. But in order to eliminate, there must be something there to begin with. For nothing to happen, something has to happen first. When I work on a set, with a lot of props, I end up by throwing most of them out, or by mixing them up, or by using mirrors so that one doesn’t know what is part of the set and what isn’t. I would like to get rid of all the make-up, so that the make-up would be forgotten, to take off all the clothes. I spend my time eliminating things, with the hope that there will be something left that will surprise me, that will make me forget that I am in a studio, in front of a model that I have booked, on a set on which I have spent hours fussing, with lights that it has taken a whole day to set up. Ultimately, what makes me press the shutter is a feeling of recognition. As if suddenly I felt: “yes, that’s it “. In fact, these are the very words that come to my lips. I “recognize” something that I had never seen until that moment, that is beyond all my intentions. As in that photo of the polka-dot dress, with Suzanne’s back. What I like about it is its weight. It was a moment when I was photographing something else. Suddenly I turned around and there it was. That’s what I mean by “a gift”.

I have been told – or did you say it? – that you are extremely near-sighted.

As a mole! that’s why I have to work with a tripod. But it helps for sensing the light, and also for judging the relations between shapes. I’m good at both. It was only when I started photography that I became aware of it. People would say to me: “But it’s not sharp!”, and I didn’t understand, because that was the way I saw things, I had never worn glasses in my life.

How do you edit your slides? On a projector?

Simply on a light table, with a loupe. You know, I make the same photo two thousand times, over and over, expecting it to happen, being afraid of missing it. I only stop when the people who work for me refuse to continue. And even then I have regrets, I keep telling myself that something else might yet happen.

It’s the same for me. What I find astonishing, is that I tend to shoot more and more, while at the same time leaving less and less room for the unexpected. When I photograph in the street, on the contrary, where millions of things happen all the time, I don’t take that many shots or insist on a given situation. While in my studio, with a light that I know well, in front of a model that I have directed into an attitude I find acceptable – and from which I only allow her to try some slight variations, like turning her head or moving her fingers – I could go on shooting ten rolls: because I expect something from those fingers.

Me too. I am there, in front of her, having no idea of what she should do, and even if I had one, not knowing how to tell her. I feel that it has to come from her, it’s like hypnotism, I look and look and wait. Of course, from time to time, I click the shutter, if only to encourage her, to encourage myself, to encourage everyone around.

But do you know when you’ve got the photo? Or are you never quite sure?

Sometimes I know. But most of the time, even when I believe I’ve got it, I can’t stop myself from searching further and soon I forget that I thought I got it.

It’s exactly the same for me.

Because it happens so fast. And a second later I’m not sure any more that it has happened. At a given moment, I tell everyone: “That’s it, we have finished!” but then I ask them to stay for one more roll, just in case, and then for another one. Because I am always afraid of having missed something, in spite of all the trouble I took to bring together all those elements, which tomorrow won’t be there. The passing of time makes me panic. When I feel moved by the beauty of a young woman, what overwhelms me is the impermanence, the feeling that it must be captured in that particular instant. I see beauty appearing and disappearing, and I feel disheartened, because I am never sure that I live up to the privilege, that I do what has to be done to convey what I saw. Our anguish, our feeling of guilt stems from the knowledge that it depends on us, on our way of seeing what’s in front of our eyes. Not only that particular sitting seems too short, not only that working day, but our whole life as photographers, we are always afraid that it may already be over. Maybe I shouldn’t go too long without working, my engine should run every day, because when it doesn’t, I don’t give myself a chance to make things happen. I should accept the risk of failure, tell myself that failure is not the worst: even though I can’t afford failing an assignment, I have at least the right to fail what I do for myself. I should simply say to myself: “Every day I’m going to make a photo.”

Paris, November 1986

Translation: Charles Martin


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