Pin It
Davide Sorrenti Jaime Nude
Jaime NudePhotography Davide Sorrenti

Vanina Sorrenti on how Davide Sorrenti’s beautiful photos changed the world

The fashion photographer remembers her late brother as a new anthology of his work is published

In a recent documentary film about late photographer Davide Sorrenti, we find his mother, Francesca, recalling an anecdote from her son’s childhood. She explains that Davide had received a bad mark in art class because he painted the sky black and the teacher wanted him to paint it blue. Davide, whose father was an artist, replied: “My father said you do what you feel, that’s what art is about.”

That same free-thinking attitude flows from Davide Sorrenti, a new anthology published by IDEA. The book is filled with his photographs alongside messages from people who knew him, from fashion collaborators to members of his crew SKE – pronounced like “ski”, it first stood for SomeKidsEnvy, later becoming SeeKnowEvil. There are also scans of notebook pages, with Davide’s hand-writing spilling over pictures, stickers, and recollections.

In 1997, the media attributed Sorrenti’s death to heroin, a drug he had dabbled in. According to Francesca – who was also a fashion photographer – a very small amount was actually found in his blood, “hardly enough to kill a fly”. But it was enough for Davide to become the poster boy for “heroin chic”, a label used to describe a type of 1990s fashion photography that was accused of glamorising drug use. In fact, his death was caused by a combination of drug use and health issues – Davide suffered from Thalassemia, a genetic blood disorder that required him to have painful transfusions every fortnight.

If anything, Davide’s photographs were not inspired by drugs or addiction, but rather documentary photography, of which he was a big fan. Seen in a new light, his unmistakably melancholic pictures now feel deeply personal, rather than just fitting with any trend. They represent a boy who was in tune with his reality, both the good and the bad. 

Davide’s sister Vanina Sorrenti – a fashion photographer – was just 22 when he passed away. As the anthology is released, we talk to Vanina about her brother’s brilliant legacy and how his work changed the world.

“I was always inspired by Davide’s approach to life” – Vanina Sorrenti

Can you talk me through how this book came together?

Vanina Sorrenti: My mother was very involved with Davide’s documentary film, directed by a young first-time director Charlie Curran who was inspired by Davide’s work, and came to New York during his senior year of college to make a short film for his final thesis on Davide. He was blown away by the interviews he had made with David’s family, friends, and community and realised he had incredible material in his hands. Charlie soon decided to return to New York after graduation and venture into making a feature film of Davide. This journey began and reopened Davide’s legacy. The film inspired my mother to put together an exhibition of Davide’s work with close friends; Havana Laffitte, Jade Berreau, and Tyrone Lebon, founders of CC Projects. The collaboration with David and Angela from IDEA Books, I guess, was a natural progression. As everyone was inspired and profoundly touched by the work Davide had produced in his short-lived youth.

Your family has been referred to as the Corleones of photography. What was your home like growing up?

Vanina Sorrenti: Yes, we did acquire the comparison to the Corleone family but we were very different. We were born and grew up in well-to-do Naples, Italy.  My father’s background was of the aristocratic, bourgeoisie kind that lost their wealth after the World War II. He always prided himself on his father’s title as the ‘The Duke of the Cesaria’. My mother’s family were wealthy distillery and landowners from the countryside of Naples. My maternal grandmother fell in love with an Italian-American GI and left Italy with him for America after the war. Soon after, my mother was born.

My mother travelled back to Naples on holidays with her family and that’s where she met my father. One of four brothers who were the notorious heartthrobs of Naples. My parents were quite rebellious and alternative for the time and very inspired by the progressive art, music, and fashion of the 60s and 70s. My father was a stunning young painter and my mother was a very creative fashion designer bringing new fashion trends from her garage “atelier”. She was very involved in the contemporary fashion scene of Naples and worked for Fiorucci. My parents separated when I was six-years-old and a year later my mother moved back to New York with us. Leaving behind the coddled lifestyle of the “buona famiglia”.

We were thrust into and confronted with the incredible contemporary lifestyle of downtown Manhattan. My brothers and I didn’t speak a word of English, but we were thrilled to be in New York, the city we were so in awe of. In the beginning, we lived in a small apartment of a chic building in Gramercy Park South. The same building my parents rented during their honeymoon period. My mother was very strong-willed and worked very hard doing several jobs to make ends meet. She was ambitious and determined to give us a good lifestyle and took advantage of every opportunity New York City had to offer. She very rapidly reconnected with the elite fashion scene she left behind in her youth.

After a year she started to gain success and we moved into a newly renovated loft building near Irving Place… in style. When she met my stepfather they were soon working together as a team and started a photo studio where they set up a creative agency. We were very involved and always modelled for them for the children’s fashion clients that were booming at the time. We were represented by (the agency) Ford Kids and had a lot of fun with it. We grew up doing odd jobs in the studio and learning different aspects of the industry. My stepfather was a photographer then and my mother did the art direction. We had access to cameras, lights, and a dark room which my brothers and I took advantage of at different times of our lives. My brother Mario being the torch and eldest. We looked up to him for guidance and inspiration. With the nurturing and support of my stepfather and mother, we all had a wonderful outlet to be creative. Our friends loved coming around and my mother was happy to have a full house of kids... the house and studio were always thriving with family, friends, and creative contemporaries of all ages and walks of life.

How did Davide go from shooting for himself to shooting professionally, especially at such a young age? 

Vanina Sorrenti: We were submerged in fashion from a young age, therefore when Davide came into his own he took full advantage and fused into the industry very naturally. He was very much into street fashion and also independently started a t-shirt company with his friends called Danücht. People loved him and were very drawn by his charismatic persona. 

When Davide passed away, his death was painted in the media as the result of a heroin overdose, inevitably associating his name with “heroin chic”. But his photography isn’t about addiction, what were his inspirations?

Vanina Sorrenti: I don’t think it was intentional. Although it did help clean up the industry quite a bit. Davide was documenting everything around him and living in the moment. His friends, family, the city, fashion, everything that was familiar and part of his community… Capturing it all as it was happening. He was young and his approach was very pure and spontaneous. I think he found inspiration in everything that surrounded him, especially the people that were close to him.

As far as ‘heroin chic’, we know there have always been drugs in fashion film, art, and music industries and some periods were more infused with it than others. I think the 90s had that... maybe it was more upfront and rebellious than in previous, more conservative times. A little like the hippie movement of the late 60s and early 70s. But it was not the cause of his death. He was born with a blood disorder called Thalassemia. The life expectancy of people with Thalassemia at that time was about 20 years. Many of his friends from the New York-Presbyterian Hospital, where he was getting treatment and receiving blood transfusions every two weeks since he was four-years-old, were also rapidly dying.

To me, one of the remarkable things of the 1990s is how the fashion industry was opening a door to a whole generation of young creatives such as Davide. Why do you think that was?

Vanina Sorrenti: I think every decade has its revolution! 

In the book, many friends and people he knew say Davide had ‘changed them’. How did he do it? Especially considering he was fighting his own battles with illness?

Vanina Sorrenti: I was always inspired by Davide’s approach to life. He was wise beyond his years and, although he was younger, I learned a great deal from him. He touched people of all ages and walks of life. He was very charismatic and could instantly light up a room with his fantastic humour. He had a gift in knowing how to make people feel good in their own skin. He managed to connect in ways that made the moment special. Alive..

Davide Sorrenti ArgueSKE 1994-1997 will be published by IDEA on 15 November 2019