There is a sequence in See Know Evil, a new documentary-biography of the late photographer Davide Sorrenti, when the then US president, Bill Clinton, takes time out of a prayer breakfast to comment on “heroin chic”, the provocatively titled mid-90s style of fashion photography that was accused of glamourising super-skinny, strung-out models.
The president clearly liked to keep an eye on fashion – he had previously complained about Calvin Klein photographs of half-dressed adolescents – but this was a more forceful, overtly political interjection.
“You do not need to glamourise addiction to sell clothes,” Clinton remarked. “The glorification of heroin is not creative, it’s destructive. It’s not beautiful; it’s ugly. And this is not about art; it’s about life and death. And glorifying death is not good for any society.”
The president’s comments were occasioned by Sorrenti’s accidental death three months earlier, in February 1997, and the grunge-inspired realist aesthetic Sorrenti and others had introduced into the fashion magazines of the day.
A Puckish member of the Sorrenti photography family and barely out of his teens, Sorrenti died in circumstances attributed to heroin, a drug in which he had only recently begun to dabble, as well as underlying health problems. Only a small amount was found in his blood – “hardly enough to kill a fly,” says his mother, the fashion photographer Francesca Sorrenti – but it served to ensure he would be linked to what would become the heroin chic aesthetic, a phrase coined at Sorrenti’s wake by Interview editor Ingrid Sischy, who turned to Francesca to say: “This is heroin, this isn’t chic. This has got to stop, this heroin chic.”
An article in the New York Times a few months after his death, titled A Death Tarnishes Fashion’s Heroin Look, argued that “the eerie silence in the fashion industry immediately following Mr Sorrenti’s death may have reflected a sense of complicity.” Sorrenti’s death “was like a small bomb going off,” wrote the journalist, Amy Spindler, obliterating denial by the industry that heroin use among its players had any relation to the so-called heroin-chic style of fashion photography.
Francesca responded to her son’s death by summoning the forces of fashion to join an awareness campaign around the dangers of the drug. She rounded on image-makers and designers. She called out fashion houses who, she claimed, permitted drugged models to walk in their shows, and the stylists who held up slumping models long enough to get the shot. She harangued Elite Models owner John Casablancas on CNN until he confirmed that yes, there was a drug problem in his business.
Industry leaders responded, making elaborate promises to care for those in their charge with a code of conduct. Heroin chic, or at least any promotion of it, was shelved. Her son’s passing, she says, “saved a lot of kids and it ended heroin chic … That’s his legacy and it’s a pretty good one.”
See Know Evil’s first-time director Charlie Curran’s quest to pay respect to Sorrenti’s talent and unpick the tangled legacy of 90s photography was initiated by the work of British fashion academic Rebecca Arnold. He happened on her book Fashion, Desire and Anxiety, which seeks to examine why fashion periodically takes a dark turn – a way, she writes, “of probing our relationship with consumerism by constructing identities that use stylish dress as a route to self-creation and yet ultimately to self-destruction”.
Curran’s film, then, serves as an examination both of the life of Sorrenti and of a moment in style that, rightly or wrongly, he has come to represent. Former art director of Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine Richard Pandisco, who gave Sorrenti his first commission, thinks that conflation of drug addiction with a certain style is too easy – and that its influence and reach is often overstated. “I remember it as yet another small trend,” he says, “but it caught the attention of people who like to create controversy and exploded. But if you ask me what it was like then, it was nothing.”
To Arnold, the images that were seen as relating to drug use were the extreme end of the wider rejection of the super glossy fashion magazines of the early 90s. She argues that the images associated with heroin chic, starting with Corinne Day’s pictures of Kate Moss in a grungy apartment printed some years earlier in British Vogue, wouldn’t have drawn much comment had they been published in a style magazine such as The Face. But placed in fashion magazines accustomed to shots of perfect women and perfect lifestyles, they were jarring.
It’s an aesthetic that had antecedents, among them Bob Richardson’s “suicide” pictures of Angelica Huston for Nova in 1971, Nan Goldin’s career-making images of her own drug addiction and the decadence of the New York downtown scene in the late 70s and early 80s , Larry Clark’s Tulsa, and Guy Bourdin’s images of women as bored, drugged dolls. What was different with the new guard of 90s photographers and stylists was, according to Arnold, that they “wanted to connect fashion to youth culture, to be fashion and critique it at the same time. They blurred the lines between life and art in a way that many found uncomfortable.
For Arnold, drug culture portrayed by other mediums gets a relatively free ride next to depictions in fashion. This was, she points out, the era of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, Larry Clark’s Kids and Kurt Cobain. “We need to ask ourselves why fashion shouldn’t comment on darker things in the culture, because if you look at the history of fashion, it’s not just about women with perfect bodies and perfect lives,” she says. Perhaps it is because of its use of aspiration and fantasy to sell clothing – the grim realities of drug addiction in Trainspotting were, after all, never branded as aspirational.
Arnold thinks there’s more to it, though. “It’s far easier to say the fashion industry has a problem, accusing it of glamourising death, than to say we have a problem in our youth culture,” she says.
Sorrenti wasn’t, in fact, a fashion photographer. “He was expressing his own journey through the medium of fashion photography because that was the language he was taught,” Curran says. “He’d explain he was a reportage photographer and he was self-aware enough to know how important the youth revolution of the late 90s was. So he documented it.”
Despite dying so young, Sorrenti had already made a name for himself. He chronicled the New York bohemian life he’d been born into, training his Leica camera on the actor Mila Jovovich, the model Jade Berreau, and his girlfriend Jaime King, an addict at the time who has since gone on to become an actor. A 1996 shot Sorrenti had taken of her in torn leggings against a backdrop of fellow drug users such as Kurt Cobain would later, King noted, get them into “so much trouble”.
“His images were spontaneous, raw and honest,” recalls Pandisco. “But he knew the rules. He knew the stylists, what they liked. He knew the street and the street artists. He was sweet and adorable and all the models knew and loved him. He had a long road ahead.”
He photographed his family, he shot his graffiti tags around the city as well as anything that caught his attention. “He was this loving and funny kid,” says Francesca, “who loved a bunch of things. He loved opera and hip-hop, he loved golf and skateboarding.”
Sorrenti lived knowing his life would not be long. He suffered from a rare kidney disorder, thalassemia, that required bi-monthly transfusions, an experience that coloured his work. “His images were mainly melancholic,” recalls his mother. “He had a little bit of everything. He had a streak of juvenile delinquency, a streak of compassion. The sad part is he dealt with a lot of pain in his life.”
In some respects, his photographs, painterly in spirit, seemed to reflect the urgency and awkwardness of his own existence. He seemed to enjoy capturing his subjects as their poses began to appear uncomfortable or otherworldly. Other examples of his work revealed the influence of a British style of fashion photography that had rejected the glamour of the supermodel era and instead focused on a more intimate, imperfect style. And in 1996, none fitted that bill better than his pictures of King in their New York apartment just off Washington Square.
“In that moment, the industry definitely flew too close to the sun,” says photographer Glen Luchford. He has an uncynical take on how it came to pass: “I’m not sure that the fashion industry, especially in the US, quite realised what they were endorsing. They just saw it as the new interesting thing and had to have a slice of it. Only when it went tits up did anyone then think: ‘Maybe that was a mistake?!’”
Whether this is unrealistically forgiving or not, it is safe to say there won’t be a revival of heroin chic. One its leading perpetrators, Goldin, now leads a campaign to force major art institutions to refuse support from the Sackler family, the former owners of Purdue Pharma and makers of OxyContin, the drug widely held responsible for causing the US opiate addiction crisis.
But maybe, says Curran, we should look at that period more objectively, not least because fashion is at the inflection point of another big change and remains, 20 years on, prone to dramatic flare-ups. With some justification, Curran argues that the aesthetic of fashion photography and designers we live with today was born in the 90s .
“It was a pivotal time and it’s only now that we’re starting to fully grasp it. The same sensitivities that heroin chic provoked then, now sometimes come through as accusations of cultural appropriation.” Either way, fashion remains held to a different standard, as Arnold argues, and that is not always to its advantage. As Curran says: “Fashion needs to be a mirror to society but it doesn’t necessarily have to be worried about what society says back.”
See Know Evil is screening at Everyman cinemas around the UK from 24 to 26 May