Fashion Photographer Mario Sorrenti & Cult Skincare Brand La Mer's Oceanic Collab

An artistic collaboration between renowned fashion lensman Mario Sorrenti, his creative daughter Gray and luxury beauty brand La Mer is a photographic plunge into the ocean


Photo / Supplied - Mario and Gray Sorrenti

With the ocean as his muse, one of fashion’s most influential photographers has crafted another set of stunning images. This time Mario Sorrenti isn’t immortalising Kate Moss or flattering yet another celebrity on a magazine cover, instead he’s sharing his latest assignment with his 19-year-old daughter, Gray. The brief: to explore their visions of the sea.

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“We didn’t want to bring any models into the equation because we just wanted the simplest, most natural thing,” says Mario.

So, the father and daughter team photographed each other along the rocky coasts of Spain and St Barths in the Caribbean. Both are long-time favourite holiday destinations of the Sorrenti family, refreshingly away from their home base in New York City. In this New Zealand exclusive, Viva shows some of the images from their Edge of the Sea project. It is an intimate yet invitingly universal portfolio of work, exploring the intersection of man and nature, sea and shore.

Photos / Supplied - Mario and Gray Sorrenti

“I grew up by the Mediterranean Sea in Naples,” explains Mario, “so for me the ocean means going back to my childhood and remembering my experience … living close to the beach and then having those experiences for us as a family ... by the ocean every summer and Christmas.” Gray says: “The ocean was my first memory. I just remember having my mum and my brother and my dad holding on to me, there was this love triangle. We were just in the ocean, keeping each other balanced … just feeling and being in the ocean. When I go into the ocean, it is this feeling of automatic repair.”

From exploring sunny coves and inky depths, Mario and Gray dived into the chance to work together for the first time. It was a special shared experience, says Mario. Gray's style is intuitive; 48-year-old Mario’s more deliberate, honed by decades working for leading designers and magazines. They were commissioned by luxury cult skincare company La Mer, which celebrates the sea as its own hero, using a healing kelp extract across its range.

Gray, like her father before her, began modelling before picking up a camera seriously. It was on a modelling job for Levi’s in London that Mario first met a young Kate Moss, going on to date her and then, in the mid-1990s, shooting her for Calvin Klein in what was a career-defining campaign for both of them. Since then, he has continued to work for a who’s who of fashion, made music videos and had his images exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. Last year, Phaidon published his book, Kate, which included not previously seen before photographs of the supermodel.

Photos / Supplied - Mario and Gray Sorrenti

With her American mother, Mary Frey, also a photographer, Gray seems happily fated to follow in her parents’ footsteps. Mario’s own mother, Francesca Sorrenti, was also a noted fashion photographer. She brought him from Italy to America when he was 10. Gray, who finished school just last year, has already shot a campaign for fashion brand Loewe and is keen to further her craft in film.

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In their La Mer photographs, Mario and Gray have captured the sort of timeless “snapshots” we all wish were a push of the button away. Despite contrasting styles, there’s a synergy in the black and white images of each other chosen from the project for use on two special limited edition jars of the original La Mer cream ($520, exclusive to Smith & Caughey’s).

Q&A WITH MARIO & GRAY SORRENTI

How did you interpret “Edge of the Sea”?
Gray: When I think of this, in my mind I first think of the horizon; it’s just this continuous and infinite vision. It’s something that never ends, it makes you feel so small yet so big in the world. It tells you everything.

Mario: For me, it was pretty literal — we were at The Edge of the Sea. But this is also a really important phrase because it’s where the four elements come together. It’s the only place in the world where water, earth, air, and fire come together with other sources of light and sun; it’s just a point of creation. So that’s one of the most important places in our life and on this planet.

How does the sea inspire you? And how did you translate that?
Mario: The kids grew up in New York City, so for us it was important to explore places that were the complete opposite. For us, getting away from the city and spending that time together as a family in the most natural, organic, unspoiled environment — always close to the ocean — was really important. This campaign, it just seemed totally natural to our lifestyle. The way that La Mer is inspired by and born from the ocean is very much similar to the way we live — and we still continue to live that way.

Gray: This project brought us back to the way that we created things when I was little. We didn’t think that much of this being a campaign, or what went onto the bottle. We thought more so of the things we’d do as a family, in my childhood, where everything was stripped down and we’d bring our inks and pencils and books to the ocean and this was very similar to that. There’s a relation of when I was little and now, it all comes together

Photo / Supplied - Mario and Gray Sorrenti

Take us behind the scenes. Where was the campaign shot and how did you select the photos you would use?
Mario: Part of the campaign was shot in Spain, and the other part was in St. Barths, which are both places that we have a long history with. We’ve been travelling to both places with the kids since they were little, during spring break or Easter, so it just seemed like the most natural places to shoot.

Gray: It was really nice because we were able to connect to the places where we got to spend a lot of time together, places that we grew up with, by the ocean.

Mario: We spent the month of August in Spain taking photographs, exploring different areas and locations each day. We took a lot of pictures and had a lot of material to work with. To finish the video portion we decided to go to St. Barths because the landscape is very similar to Spain, but also because it was another place we love going to. We kind of extended what we had already begun in Spain; we already knew where we were with the campaign and what we had started, what kind of light we had been playing with. We realised that the images we wanted to create were a little bit more abstract — the silhouettes, the contrasts — just so that the photographs would feel more universal and less specifically about us but more about the light, the photographs, the environment, the textures.

Why did you both decide to design the La Mer jars in black & white?
Mario: We decided to do black and white photography because that’s what we love doing and that’s our art, that’s the way we express ourselves and that’s our craft. There’s something that’s way beyond just being charming, it’s a historic part of our lives, the way we create and document. It was just natural because that’s what we create as artists.

Photo / Supplied - Mario and Gray Sorrenti

What was your favourite part of the process?
Mario: My favourite part, which I will never forget and I will forever be indebted to La Mer for, was the opportunity to actually work with Gray and to see Gray do what she loves to do so closely; to be able to share ideas and share my knowledge in a really, really close and intimate way. That was the most special thing that could ever happen, really. We just went to where we were the happiest, where we loved being, and took pictures doing what we felt the most comfortable doing. We have a house in Spain, so we decided that we would go there and take photos of our environment, and of each other. We both love photography and it seemed totally natural making art in that place; there wasn’t much else that went into it because that’s what we do anyway.

Gray: For me, it was the same. I actually got really sick when I was in St. Barths; I had a sunstroke so I was struggling a little bit but I was trying my hardest. On the last day, all of a sudden, I felt revived and it was a really special day because we were able to wrap everything and look at everything we’ve done. Like I say in the campaign and in all of the writing, when the wind and the sea combine, they make this whole whirlwind and I guess that’s how I see me and my dad. That’s how we worked together. It was fun, it was great.

What is one valuable lesson you have taught each other as father and daughter?
Gray: I don’t think it’s one thing, I think it’s everything. That’s an impossible question to answer, it’s not something I can pick and choose… it’s everything.

Mario: I spent the last 18 years of my life educating Gray and I’m super proud of her and what she’s turned into as a young woman. Her values, family values, level of respect, and just really coming from a place of love. I’m really happy to see that she’s just such a great, young woman.

Photo / Supplied - Mario and Gray Sorrenti

When did you first learn about La Mer. Did your impression change with the collaboration?
Mario: My wife Mary and I were first introduced to the Crème de la Mer at least 15 years ago. Back then we used to buy creams when we were travelling to Europe, but this woman told us about the Crème and Mary just loved it. So when La Mer came to us, we thought, “Oh my god!” It was kind of amazing because we love this brand and we love that cream.

Gray: When I was little I had very bad eczema. We tried to find solutions that would calm my skin and really, nothing worked. It wasn’t until I found my mom’s La Mer and smothered it all over my face — it was really the only thing that would help calm my irritation. My mom would eventually find the bottle with nothing left… it was a funny thing.

Mario: I’ve done a lot of campaigns with beauty brands in the past, but never in this capacity. I’ve never designed a jar or collaborated with anyone in my family. This has been an amazing experience because somehow we were able to bring ourselves to the imagery, to the brand, the concepts, the films. It’s all very personal; it’s about who we are as artists and what we believe in. It’s definitely a new opportunity.

When did your interest in photography begin and what have been some of the major influences in your career?
Mario: My interest for photography started when I was 18 years old. Just purely by chance I stumbled onto it; my friend was studying photography in school and she introduced me to it, she had a dark room at her place and everything. I didn’t really care for photography before that, I was much more interested in painting and sculpture — that’s what I was planning to study in school. But when we went into the dark room and started printing the photographs we took that day, I thought it was incredible and I loved it. From then I started doing it more and more, and became so obsessed by it that I remember saying to myself, “Wow. I think this is something I could do for my life.”

I had a lot of influences. At the time I was really inspired by the documentary book of Robert Frank, Mary Ellen Mark, and Danny Lyon. As far as fashion photography I really love the work of Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Sally Mann, and the early 1970’s photography.

Photo / Supplied - Mario and Gray Sorrenti

I was never properly schooled in photography, I just kind of taught myself. I started buying books and just went really deep in educating myself on the history of photography, the process, and the technique through experimenting. And now it’s been 35 years I’ve been taking pictures… so here we are.

Gray: I’ve grown up in a house of artists and I’ve observed this my whole life. I didn’t really know that I wanted to be a photographer, it wasn’t something that my dad told me I had to do. It kind of naturally came to me, I guess one day I picked up a camera that my dad gave me and it felt good. I just I couldn’t stop taking pictures. My first camera was a film camera so that’s how I started and still what I’m doing today. As soon as I got to high school, my school had a dark room and I spent hours and hours in there. It’s kind of the same way my dad’s love for it evolved — mine evolved in the same manner. I had him to watch and I was able to learn from his experiences.

Obviously I grew up in the same house as my father, who had a collection of so many beautiful books that I was able to read and from that learn from the photographers that he liked. For me, I love Nan Goldin, Diane Arbus, Bruce Davidson — he’s one of my favorite photographers, Bruce Bernard… there are a trillion. I’m also really influenced by Japanese photographers like Daido Moriyama.

Photo / Supplied - Mario and Gray Sorrenti

How does your photography differ from one another and in what ways are they similar?
Mario: I think our work is very different. I think Gray’s work is very spontaneous and intuitive, she’s definitely connected in a very natural way to her peers. I’m also inspired by her energy. I think my work can become very studied and you sense the mature experience behind what I do. But I think we both have something very similar, maybe it’s the emotion and passion in both of our works.

Gray: As human beings on this planet, I feel like you and I were given some kind of power to be able to connect in a pure and natural way with our subject, where not only is the subject comfortable but we are comfortable too. There’s this natural balance. Not only are we creating an image, our subject is also creating that image with us. We are reading into the emotion and reading into the people, it’s something that’s natural. I think that’s the way you raised me, the way you raised yourself and the way that you’ve been raised.

How do you define beauty?
Gray: Beauty is natural. It’s not defined by makeup, a photoshoot, or by a person. It’s the way you carry yourself, the way you are born into this world. It’s a beautiful thing.

Mario: I think I’m trying to define beauty every day. That’s sort of what I try and do with all my work, “What is beauty?” It’s always changing, always evolving, always surprising, because it’s not always what we think it is. For me the search of beauty is part of what I do with photography. It can change all the time. To me, beauty is very much tied to some sort of search in truth and discovery. Sometimes you can create something that is not obviously beautiful but gives you a powerful emotion and there’s something beautiful in having such a deep emotion. So for me, beauty is a lot of different things. It can be a dark sky or beautiful sunny sky. It’s how you’re feeling in the moment and how it’s interpreted.

What is your favourite La Mer product?
Gray: The cream! I like all of them, but I like the lighter one, The Moisturizing Soft Cream.

Mario: I like The Moisturizing Soft Cream as well. [My wife] Mary loves the really thick one, The Crème de la Mer.

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