Visual Culture
25 Years Later, Mario Sorrenti Unveils Intimate Photos of Kate Moss
Mario Sorrenti, Kate Moss. © Mario Sorrenti. Courtesy of Phaidon.

Mario Sorrenti, Kate Moss. © Mario Sorrenti. Courtesy of Phaidon.

For nearly three decades, Kate Moss has stared down the lenses of every major fashion photographer. She is her generation’s Twiggy, swinging the fashion pendulum away from curvy models back toward waiflike figures with doe-eyed gazes. Gallery exhibitions have analyzed the power of her face, and auction houses have sold pictures of it for millions.
Nearly a dozen books have been published about Moss, which range from glossy photographic tributes to academic dissections of her status as an icon. But a new monograph, simply titled Kate, by famed photographer—and her former boyfriend—Mario Sorrenti, shows us 50 never-before-seen pictures from her early days as an aspiring model. These are the photographs that convinced American designer Calvin Klein that the Sorrenti-Moss duo would help relaunch his fragrance, Obsession—the photographs that launched both their careers.

The early days

In the summer of 1991, the Italian-born Sorrenti met a young blonde from Croydon, in south London, while out on a modeling job. “I remember sitting next to her and feeling like my heart was going to stop,” he wrote about first meeting Moss. They lived like young artists in love—with little money and little to worry about.
Behind his Pentax 67, Sorrenti was discovering himself as a photographer. “There [was] an inherent innocence on my part” he explained to Artsy, “and on Kate’s part about photography and image-making.” He originally intended to be a painter, but discovered in photography an unparalleled medium for making images. Naturally, the pictures of Moss began to stack up: Moss swimming in a lake, or curled up in a sea of white bedsheets, or topless on the roof of his mother’s house. A collection of intimate black-and-white portraits was born.

Starting an “Obsession”

Kate Moss in Calvin Klein’s “Obsessed” campaign.

In the ‘80s, Klein reached infamy for his controversial ads. In a 1980 spot featuring 15-year old Brooke Shields, she asked the viewer, “Do you know what gets between me and my Calvins?” Of Moss, the designer seemed equally preoccupied with her appearance of youth, saying: “Kate has that quality of child woman thing which touches a nerve.” Moss’s rise to fame also ushered in the fashion world’s fixation on heroin chic, a ‘90s phenomenon that fetishized visible collarbones and sunken eyes. Klein defended his lineup of waiflike models. “She is thin but she’s natural” he said of Moss. “There’s nothing artificial about her; there’s nothing fake.”
Obsession first launched in 1985, and it made Calvin Klein a powerhouse in the women’s fragrance market. Today, one of its early TV spots looks like a parody of an ‘80s soap opera. A model with slicked-back hair runs from man to man, crumbling orchids in their faces while declaring, “In the kingdom of passion, the ruler is Obsession.” If it was to sell in the ‘90s, it needed an update.
Before they were tucked away in Sorrenti’s archives, he kept his pictures of Moss in the diaries he showed friends and potential clients, back in the early ‘90s. At the same time, Fabien Baron was leading the effort to re-launch Calvin Klein's Obsession fragrance. Baron introduced Sorrenti to Klein after he saw these pictures of Kate. “Calvin just fell in love with the picture that I had done of Kate in Virgin Gorda,” Mario recalled, “you know, all those very intimate personal pictures.” Klein wasted no time in sending Moss and Sorrenti to one of the British Virgin Islands for ten days to recreate the images for the 1993 Obsession campaign.
In the print and television campaign, shot in black and white film, Moss and Sorrenti live in their own little world. At the time, she was 18 years old and he was 20. It was their own private island in the middle of the sea, and they had nothing to do except obsess over each other and make images. Moss wears only tan lines and makes coy eye contact with the camera. She walks through a beachy landscape of rustling palm trees and weathered walls. Sorrenti’s pictures have proven to be timeless—a timelessness that Raf Simons revisited in 2017 for the launch of the Calvin Klein fragrance Obsessed, which used footage from the original campaign.

The making of Kate

Spread from Mario Sorrenti, Kate, 2018. Published by Phaidon.

Spread from Mario Sorrenti, Kate, 2018. Published by Phaidon.

Eight years ago, Sorrenti’s wife found his negatives of Moss and brought them to his attention. “You really should do something with these,” he recalled her saying, “they’re so beautiful.” With the help of longtime collaborator Dennis Freedman, Sorrenti began compiling the pictures for Kate. He also asked Moss, who he still frequently collaborates with, for her blessing to publish them. “I didn’t have a book together yet but I showed the edit of all the photographs. She loved them.” In the process of editing, Sorrenti and Freedman learned that “it would be more special to keep it very pure and very simple,” he noted, and to focus on the pictures that had never before been seen.
Two decades gave Sorrenti enough emotional distance to revisit these pictures. “Going back and looking at the innocence of my approach,” he looked at his focus and wondered, “Why did I take these pictures?”
Spread from Mario Sorrenti, Kate, 2018. Published by Phaidon.

Spread from Mario Sorrenti, Kate, 2018. Published by Phaidon.

For Sorrenti, revisiting his archive was more than revisiting an old relationship. He remembered his earliest photography inspirations: Edward West, , and . He became re-acquainted with his younger self—shy, quiet and a little naive: “Those are incredible qualities, and you spend your whole entire life trying to strengthen yourself,” he mused,“and then you realize it’s actually quite beautiful.”
He realized that 25 years does something to a picture: “A photograph that was candid or simple at the time all of the sudden has a completely different relevance,” he said. The time in between gives you more than emotional distance, it refreshes the image. “We don’t have to overthink the pictures, we just have to give them time.”
Michelle Santiago Cortés