Sarah Moon: On the Edge @Howard Greenberg

JTF (just the facts): A total of 39 color and black-and-white photographs, variously framed and matted, and hung against light grey walls in the main gallery space. (Installation shots below.)

The following works are included in the show:

  • 19 gelatin silver prints, 1989, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2016, 2017, 2020, 2021, 2022, sized roughly 12×16, 16×12, 16×20, 20×16, 20×24, 24×20 inches, in editions of 20
  • 4 toned gelatin silver prints, 2011, 2020, sized roughly 13×18, 16×12, 24×20 inches, in editions of 20
  • 2 toned gelatin silver prints, 2018, 2019, sized roughly 24×20 inches, in editions of 15
  • 4 color pigment transfer prints, 1996, 1997, 2000, 2014, sized roughly 22×28, 28×22 inches, in editions of 15
  • 4 archival pigment prints, 2019, 2022, n.d., sized roughly 18×16, 28×22 inches, in editions of 15
  • 1 archival pigment print, 2012, sized roughly 79×59 inches, in an edition of 5
  • 1 platinum print, 2022, sized roughly 24×20 inches, in an edition of 15
  • 3 gelatin silver prints, 2000, sized roughly 8×11 inches, in editions of 7
  • 1 Polaroid, 1996, sized roughly 4×3 inches, unique

Comments/Context: Despite the mechanical (or computational) precision inherent in the way a camera reproduces a view of whatever is placed in front of its lens, across the history of the photography, plenty of photographers have deliberately worked to re-imagine photographic aesthetics that aren’t necessarily rooted in rigorous crispness and clarity. Some have explored blur, movement, low light, and long exposures, others have experimented with alternative processing and printing techniques, and still others have opted for physical interventions of one kind or another, including overpainting, montage, and rephotography. In many cases, what these photographers were searching for was a broader range of photographic expressiveness, where everything from chemical chance to painterly richness might be possible.

Developing a uniquely personal photographic look and feel is certainly harder than it might seem, but across nearly six decades of work, much of it made in a fashion context, Sarah Moon has undeniably crafted a durable signature style. “Painterly” is the adjective most often applied to the tactile complexity of Moon’s imagery, but in her best works, there’s something far more seductive going on. Over the years, she has refined an expressive kind of photographic approximation, where edges and colors are softened to the point that they become fluid essences. When a model in a dress is given the Moon treatment, we see the elemental lines and formal shapes of that dress more than anything else, to which we then graft our own ideas of romance, mystery, grace, or melancholy. We might try to call these pictures Impressionistic, fleeting, or even ethereal, but what Moon has really done is muted their specificity, which opens them up to aspiration and imagination.

This gallery show is a loose survey of Moon’s work across several decades, interleaving commissioned fashion images with photographs of other subjects in relatively equal measure. Over the years, Moon has worked for Vogue, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, and many other magazines, aiming her eye at looks by a wide range of designers, including Christian Dior, Thierry Mugler, Yohji Yamamoto, Junko Watanabe, and Hussein Chalayan, as seen here. When shooting in black-and-white, she has clearly mastered the malleable nuances of dark shadow and subtle motion, using both to reduce a dress form down to its underlying spirit. More austere black dresses are further pared down to lilting silhouettes and hints of geometry, where subtle lines, curves, and the fall of drapery become the central subject. And when bolder patterns and more exuberantly voluminous shapes are on offer, Moon encourages them to swirl and float, as in the billowing turnovers of “Garden Party”, the reversed tonal luxury of “Falling”, and the shimmery shifting hyphenation of “Papillon”.

Moon’s fashion work in color is some of her most memorable imagery, mostly because of the way she suffuses the color through areas of tactile darkness. She stages a ruffled light blue dress against a backdrop of mustard yellow, arranges a ballooned red bottom against geometric blocks in a similar color, encourages a layered beige and white look to flutter with wispy drama, and sets a stark black dress with a large hat against yellowy chartreuse, in each case, deliberately softening and enriching the colors, pushing them towards gentler, more enveloping moods. These same subdued color techniques have also been applied to a lovely enlargement of an amaryllis, which nearly fills an entire wall with its dappled diffusion, and a shadowy female nude slumped in a bathtub (with a nod to a much brighter and more colorful work by Bonnard) that drops into serene tranquility.

Moon’s work outside the realm of fashion jumps around to various subjects, including urban building shadows, silhouetted palm trees, and a broken glass jug. More than a few of these images embrace a touch of the grandly surreal, in the form of Fellini-esque carnival rides, tightrope walkers, circus tents, masked figures, and even a preening peacock. One standout image titled “En équilibre” (from 2004) brings together two dangling figures, a pair of ladders, and several hanging wires in a puzzlingly flat arrangement of unlikely balance. Many of these works feel even more dream-like than Moon’s fashion photographs, untethered as they are from dresses that need to communicate their unique personalities.

As seen in this career sampler, Moon’s best fashion work achieves a kind of sublime lushness that is entirely unique, its Moon-iness both instantly recognizable and often meltingly ravishing. In a sense, she has updated a Pictorialist impulse for the contemporary world, without falling into the trap of cloying (or annoying) affectation. When she gets it just right, she seems to tap into a vein of understated glamour that both celebrates the talents of the designers and draws us into a place where magic is still possible.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $13000 and $58000, based on size and place in the edition. Moon’s work has been intermittently available at auction in the past decade, with prices ranging from roughly $5000 to $38000.

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Read more about: Sarah Moon, Howard Greenberg Gallery

One comment

  1. Pete /

    Excellent review, teased out so much of what makes the pictures captivating.

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