SeeKnowEvil

by Long Nguyen

FLAUNT-seenoevil-davide-sorrenti-1.png

I still remember clearly a phone call in the early morning of Wednesday February 5, 1997, when the caller, someone that I was working with at the time, informed me that Davide Sorrenti had passed away the previous evening. I was stunned and was so numbed that it was hard to even utter any words in response. At the time I did expect to get a call regarding Davide but it should have just been about letting me know that the prints were ready for me to pick up from the studio in the East Village on 16thStreet and 3rdAvenue. Towards the end of December we had completed a photo shoot for the March 1997 fashion issue of Detour Magazine where I was then the magazine’s style director and Davide had told me that he would finish the printing after he’d take a small holiday getaway with his family. He didn’t say where they were going but having worked with him for over a year, I didn’t have any doubt that he would turn the prints in on time.

Photo by Davide Sorrenti

Photo by Davide Sorrenti

The week that followed that phone call was a bit of a whirlwind. Francesca and Mario selected and made the prints for the last series, I received the prints during this hectic week to go into layout, the magazine went to print on time and reached newsstands at the end of February 1997. All of Davide’s long time friends attended his wake that took place in the East Village and in the next few weeks there was a small exhibition of some of his photograph organized by his mother, Francesca.  When I received the March issue at the office, I decided to write a small tribute and hand inserted a photocopy of what I had written inside the magazine in between the pages with Davide’s last published story. I just wanted for people who did not had a chance to meet or work with him to know that he was an incredibly creative person, always questioning how things can be done differently and how things can be seen from another perspective. By inserting the letter into the magazine, I just wanted to convey that he was a very special person to those who had a chance to come into contact with him and over time getting to know him as an individual but also as a young, emerging artist.  

Photo by Davide Sorrenti

Photo by Davide Sorrenti

I wrote about the first time he came by the magazine’s office one afternoon and I didn’t know if he was delivering something. He had a thick, small notebook of pictures and drawings with him and he proceeded to relate to me the personal stories as to how these visuals came about. It was like getting to know someone immediately, not through the spoken words, not through the length and breath of time spent but through a series of pictures and drawings that seemed random at first but were in fact like words of an autobiography. He was a very perceptive person and was always very curious about everything and certainly had his own ways of doing things. When he came to deliver the prints for our first shoot, he gave me six different hard cardboard with the 8x10 black and white photos glued onto the boards.That sure was not how any photographers would deliver final print to a magazine. He had mentioned the reason he crazy glued the photos to the cardboard was because though he knew how he wanted the layout to look like, his lack of experience in magazine work made him worried I wouldn’t get the layout the way he had wanted the story to flow. I had to explain to him that this was not the case and that I had the utmost respect for how each photographer liked to see their work shown in the magazine. After this incident, the prints simply came in a Kodak 8x10 yellow box.  

Photo by Davide Sorrenti

Photo by Davide Sorrenti

As I mentioned in the documentary film, our first shoot was a guerilla style shoot that took place inside the subway system and on the active train tracks. I was more of a guard looking out for the police as we did not have any city permission and I had to also look out for trains arriving and departing so one of the guys could jump onto the tracks for the shot. For our next shoot, we decided to use a demolition site in Alphabet City as part of an outside-inside combo series. We found the site one afternoon while walking around to scout for location. On the day of the shoot, he brought a folding chair so the model girl could sit for one of the four shots.  

Towards the end of 2011, a film student from Atlanta called me to say that he was interested in doing a document film on the life, art and photography work of Davide Sorrenti and asked if I would participate and if I had any materials in archive to share. At first I wasn’t even sure if he was serious but Curran persisted.  Eventually he came over with a crew and conducted a lengthy interview as he was also doing extensive interviews with Francesca, Mario and Vanina – Davide’s mother, brother and sister respectively, with his friends who formed the SKE (SeeKnowEvil) crew, with the former model and actress Milla Jovovich and James King as well as the many people who have worked albeit in his brief career as a photographer. Needless to say I think the completion of the film was a work of pure devotion and utter focus.  

Premiered early this November at the DocNY documentary film festival in New York, SeeKnowEvil narrated Davide’s personal story using film archives and contributions from his friends and peers. The film portrays an individual beaming with unceasing energy despite of having Cooley’s anemia, an hereditary form of anemia that required bi-weekly, overnight blood transfusions and constant medical care. The disease made his appearance much younger than his actual age. While attending Bayard Rustin High School for the Humanities, he and his very close friends, fellow skateboarders and graffiti artists who all hung out together formed SKE (SeeKnowEvil) as a group that put up graffiti around the city. They even started a tee-shirt label called Danücht for a time, making the infamous white tee with black capital letterings MODEL SUCK. Curran was also keen on showing the harsh medical side of Davide’s hereditary condition with an interview of someone who was being treated contemporaneously, showing footages and pictures of Davide being hooked onto transfusion machines at hospitals.  

Photo by Davide Sorrenti

Photo by Davide Sorrenti

The film showed how Davide always had a small camera with him and was virtually documenting his and SKE crew’s every move late in 1994. He had access to fashion models by hanging out at his brother’s Mario fashion shootings and started taking pictures of the models on the side. The thick book he showed me was comprised of photographs he had taken without any guidance. There was also a small segment in the film showing work he’d done for an advertising client and a small denim company. It was clear to the audience that he took the pictures he wanted, despite the client’s wishes.

Having worked with many experienced photographers and artists prior, I noticed he had a very specific way he liked to shoot his pictures. He wasn’t worried about the clothes, as I explained the clothes only serve a purpose to get 12 photographs printed in a magazine. The clothes acted as a vessel to make art.  He had a certain way with the models; he never explicitly instructed them, he let them settle into the pictures in their own ways. Each shoot went fast, lasting no more than four hours. It was clear that he had a specific vision and he knew how to execute it.

The film also touched on an event after Davide’s death. The New York Times published a front page story on Tuesday May 20, 1997 titled A Death Tarnished Fashion’s ‘Heroin Look’ with a photograph of Davide and work that I had done for the March 1997 issue.  People began to blame each other and painted me as the main culprit as the editor who brought forth and glamorized the look of drug addiction in magazines. Later that week, President Clinton denounced the glorification of the heroin look saying ‘it is ugly, it is not about art, it is about life and death.’  

Milla Jovovich by Davide Sorrenti

Milla Jovovich by Davide Sorrenti

I stood up at the time and defended all the photographers and artists who pursued this line of creative work during that time. The concept of taking junkie pictures was foreign and strange to me. This aspect of photography in the late 90’s can be  understood through this specific atmosphere in fashion that spawned many creative endeavours. The mid 1990’s was a period of incredible creativity with few boundaries, allowing fashion designers to break barriers, realize their identity, and take advantage of their freedom. On the one hand there was the Japanese in Paris, Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garçons, then Jean-Paul Gaultier and Helmut Lang and the Belgians Martin Margiela and Ann Demeulemeester. On the other, there was the rise of Tom Ford at Gucci, Versace and the beginning of the cult of Prada in Milano. These are all examples of huge influences in fashion promoting how fashion can be a platform for personal transformation. Wearing certain designers wasn’t about portraying a luxury lifestyle, they gave a sense of belonging and shared values.  

Although initially more underground, some aspects of the fashion world dwelled on the 90’s waif models. Their slim silhouettes seemed more natural, they wore less make-up and less constructed clothes. In this way they seemed to embrace authenticity over manufactured glamour and perfection.  For some a nearly destroyed dress, perhaps made from synthetic fabrics by Martin Margiela, seemed right while a perfectly constructed Versace, Armani or even Tom Ford’s slick and sexy Gucci felt like artifice.

Photo by Davide Sorrenti

Photo by Davide Sorrenti

There were many different, strong voices and directions in fashion, as well as divergent roads in terms of fashion photographs. Works that were commissioned for large mainstream magazines differed greatly from the experimental platforms of independent magazines. Publications varied depending on if they were U.K., U.S. or France based. It is easy to forget today that before the advent of the Internet era and the digital age, magazines were the most important and the only vehicle for creative work as there simply weren’t any other platforms.  

In a time of faux glamor and retouched images, photographers and artists like Nan Goldin turned their lenses towards a more personal and realistic version of their lives. This photographic style was also a different type of narration, used to tell a different story in the same way fashion designers were creating multiple voices.  One segment of fashion met a segment of artists who sought to convey a more personal narrative to their photographs, even in fashion magazines. Davide’s sensibilities aligned with those who sought the same authenticity in their clothes as in the pictures they looked at or appeared in.

Photo by Davide Sorrenti

Photo by Davide Sorrenti

In the immediate aftermath of the ‘heroin chic’ crisis, magazines under stress from advertisers had to turn up the lights in the pictures and models were required to smile. In an editorial note I wrote for the August 1997 issue, I stated that the whole concept of heroin chic was nothing but make-believe and that “the few magazine editors who work on the vanguard of fashion photography are not pushing drugs to innocent adolescent when they produce images that portray enervated models in desolate environment, instead of those with radiant smiles, sipping fresh-squeezed orange juice under the warm Florida sun. The strength of photography lies in widening its scope, not in submitting the visual to the scrim of current moral codes.”  For the December-January year end issue, I produced an entire section where all the models were smiling, some forcefully and a few with faux giggles with just a touch of humor under the title The Surrogate World.

In a way SeeKnowEvil set the records straight regarding Davide’s work. Whatever the reasons for personal drug use were, they were not for the purpose of creative work and that at no time was there any intention of using drugs in order to infuse the photographs with certain feelings and moods. I was hoping that Curran’s film would illustrate this point and clarify at least a misinterpretation two decades ago. Davide’s death was a confluence of many elements merging together, his on-going blood disease and the required, time sensitive hospitalization. There was some drug use in his last year but that was not the driving force of his creativity.

SeeKnowEvil premiered overseas at the Torino Film Festival late in November with two sold out screenings.  Made to Measure is currently looking for a distributor for the national and global distribution rights.