CHITCHAT (unfinished): A strange meditation on gossip.

Kids Of America a series of ID spots for MTV (1998). The first films I directed. Verite portraits of music fans. Shot across the country on beautiful Super 8 by Tobin Yelland.

Davide Sorrenti

By Aaron Rose for Kaleidoscope Magazine

My candle burns at both ends;

   It will not last the night;

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—

   It gives a lovely light!

 

This excerpt from Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem First Fig, has always held a special place in my heart. As a person working within the creative firelds for decades, I cannot begin to describe the number of individuals in my circles (including myself!) to which these words apply so succinctly. More times than not, the creative spirit demands life be led with a certain level of excess. This overindulgence can manifest physically, emotionally, psychologically and more times than not as a combination of all three. I would say that this beautiful poem at the top of this page most certainly applies to the life and work of Davide Sorrenti.

 

Being an artist isn’t easy. People don’t understand that in order to comprehend the world in a way that allows you to interpret it with vision, then you must exist as an outsider. As an other. I knew Davide back in New York in the mid-1990’s, but we weren’t great friends. He was younger than me,  the type of kid I’d run into here and there. He was always cool. We shared a similar group of Downtown friends and because of that, there was a kind of mutual understanding between us. At the time I owned a small underground gallery on the Lower East Side, and while we never did any shows together I was always aware of his photographic work.

I remember Davide’s eyes. They betrayed his smile. He understood something powerful about the world and you could see it in his gaze. His unique charm and gift of gab were typical of a lot of the New York kids I hung around with at the time, but Davide always stood out. One could be tempted to attribute this to the fact that from a very young age, through his family he was immersed in the fashion world and hung around an older crowd. Perhaps the combination of the exclusive world of models and celebrities and the rough and tumble streets of Manhattan created this crazy personality cocktail? It’s certainly possible. But I think it’s more than that…

In order to understand a creative spirit like Davide Sorrenti, one must also undserstand what the New York City of the 1990’s looked and felt like as well.  It’s complicated territory to jump backwards to say that the city was better then…but it was. At least if you were in your 20’s and figuring out who you are and, more importantly, who you were trying to to be. The city offered itself up as a playground for anyone looking to explore their creative spirit. One could describe the world below 14th Street as an island of misfit toys. In this case, however, the toys had taken over and, at least in our minds, we were running the show. 

 

In those days, there were very few retail shops in Soho. The neighborhood was still mostly industrial, with a smattering of innovative galleries and artists’ lofts on the floors above. Those now bustling streets were almost always empty at night. The East Village and Lower East Side were veritable war zones. It was not uncommon to come across avenues littered with the corpses of burnt-out automobiles. The city felt lawless, which was an ideal place for a young person to run wild and free. New York provided a wealth of inspiration, but could also be a place where one could also get themself into trouble. The gang I hung out with back then embraced this chaos, as I’m sure Davide and his crew did as well.

 

Personally, I remember one late night in the West Village. It was 1993, I think. Some friends and I were 3 sheets to the wind and decided it would be funny to light an old mattress on fire. That thing went up like an inferno, eventually catching the side of an apartment building. The police showed up and took us to jail, but then released us a few hours later with no charges. That kind of thing happened alot in New York City back then. The cops didn’t sweat the small stuff, and, believe it or not, even attempted arson was considered a small crime. So you can imagine when your’re young and you realize that there will be little or no punsihment for bad behavior that everyone would be encouraged to be worse. 

It’s this sort of socially out-of-bounds behavior that most certainly inspired Davide Sorrenti’s photographic work. In retrospect, he has been most celebrated for his small yet powerful output in the world of fashion, yet I had always thought of Davide’s work more as part of the legacy of street photography. His fashion work was certainly unique and held its own aesthetic separate from the rest of his family. There was a certain melancholy in each of his fashion images that bordered on self-portraiture. The models beoming reflections of him and an unspoken internal sadness, rather than any sort of individual expression from his subjects. 

 

That being said, looking at his overall body of work, it cannot be denied that his heart was always drawn to the documentary image. Real Life was the most interesting thing for him to capture with his camera. The unscripted, poorly lit, raw and emotional image that cannot be manufactured in a studio. You absolutely had to live it to get the shot. Davide most certainly did. His subjects were simple. Someone puffing on a joint on a rooftop. Random people on the subway. A blurry portrait of a friend in an elevator. The set-ups were always secondary to the emotion. the photographs are beautiful not because of what they are, but because of what they’re not.

 

To see the world clearly as it is unfolding before your eyes, and then to have the ability to recognize and capture it, is a unique talent that all great artists possess. No amount of art school can teach this. It’s an intangible, it comes from the spirit world, from the place of the “other” and when looking at Davide’s photographs it’s obvious that he knew this. While always visually striking and excerting a certain technical prowess, I always look at his works as a sort of evidence. Like he was saying “We live! We lived!” with each click of the shutter. He was ahead of his time, and even to this day, new generations try to emulate what happened back then. However no amount of social media will ever reproduce that unflincing raw emotion that came from photographers like Davide Sorrenti and the others that looked at the world in the same way. Many have tried. Most will fail.

The New York scene in the mid-1990’s was like lightning in a bottle. It can’t be reproduced. For all of it’s flaws (and believe me there were many) there was something special in the air. A cultural event that that only happens once in a generation. A visual aesthetic is developed and set loose into the world that defines the way everything will look and feel for the next 20 years. Davide was part of this, and though he was only with us for a short time, his unique contribution to the overall experiment cannot be underestimated. Unlike other artists whose legacy is defined by a prolific output, Davide never had this luxury. Instead he made his mark through raw blunt visual force and an almost contradictory internal sensitivity. His work was not about the numbers, it was always about the soul.

I have a very strong memory of meeting Davide one day in 1996 outside of Harmony Korine’s apartment on the corner of Prince and Lafayette streets. We were out on the sidewalk with a film crew making a short movie for MTV that I was producing and Harmony was directing. In the middle of a shot, Davide skated up and into frame. We kept the cameras rolling as a conversation ensued. This was such a classic New York moment that it has always stuck with me. The conversation wasn’t anything special, we were pretty much just talking crap, but it was one of those random meetings that can only happen in that city. A group of people who would go on to change the face of culture, yet having no idea that anything important was going on. In retrospect, as evidenced in Davide’s photographs, it’s perhaps these little slices of life that have the greatest meaning in the long run. As he skated away that day, he spun around with that wide grin of his and threw up a peace sign. It was the last time I ever saw him.