Who is Davide Sorrenti?
Italian-American photographer David Sorrenti was known predominantly for his association with what became known as the “Heroin Chic” trend in fashion photography in the 1990s. Though initially attributed to an overdose, Sorrenti’s death at twenty eventually emerged as having been caused, despite the presence of drugs in his system, by kidney failure.
Davide Sorrenti was born in Naples on July 9, 1976, in Naples, Italy. Living with a hereditary blood disorder called thalassemia (also known as Cooley’s Anemia), Davide would require medical attention for most of his life. The disease “made him look half his age”, caused considerable pain, and ultimately necessitated he sleep hooked up to machinery and receive bi-weekly blood transfusions.
Family Background and Interest in Photography
Francesca Sorrenti had moved her children to New York City in the eighties following her divorce. A regular kid who was into graffiti and golf, skateboarding, and opera, Davide was a “fixture at fashion events with his mother….” Author Alexandr Lyapin wrote: “Davide immediately took to bohemian life — and the drugs that he started taking back when he was the leader of the school street crew called Some Kids Envy”. He wrote graffiti under the tag “Argue”. He was capturing the city and his “crew” in photos with borrowed equipment before he actually owned a camera.
Following Davide Sorrenti’s untimely death at twenty, Amy M. Spindler’s 1997 New York Times piece stated: “Mr. Sorrenti was part of a family that his mother, Francesca Sorrenti, 47, said was being referred to as ''the Corleones'' of fashion photography. His older brother, Mario, 25, is best known for the Calvin Klein Obsession campaign he photographed, featuring his girlfriend at the time, Kate Moss. His mother's photography has been seen in Interview, the Face, and Italian Glamour and Vogue. His sister, Vanina, 24, is a fashion stylist.”
In Mark Holgate’s 2019 Vogue interview with Francesca, she said: “Davide was a sponge; he absorbed from his whole family, he would work with me and Mario, and with his stepdad, who was a children’s photographer and who is now Mario’s business manager; he played a huge role for Davide, showing him how to use a camera and the dark room. He never went out without a camera around his neck. He got a camera when he was 17. We gave him a Contax for Christmas, but we had tons of cameras around. Mario had lent him one; he has his own apartment, and Davide was always there, touching Mario’s stuff! He once saw a picture of him with a camera and Mario said, “That’s my Miyama!” Also, Glen [Luchford] was very close to Davide, encouraging him. I would take him out of the country on my shoots, and we all lived in my studio. When I was editing film, he would help me, and when he would shoot I would help him. He’d say to me, ‘Ma, come look at my shoot. What do you think?’”
Early Fame in the Fashion Industry
According to his mother, Davide “…met Ingrid [Sischy - editor of Interview], and she gave him a story, and that was his first job; it’s a compilation of four pictures in the book. He came home from doing that all excited, and then he got a bigger commission on skateboarding. He shot it in Union Square, and I went by and I was sort of mesmerized by him. He was so professional,
and he shot just like me—he was fast and he knew what he wanted. I was so proud that he wanted to see the clothes first; that had rubbed off on him from me.” He was off and running.
Rise to Fame in the Fashion Industry
Working with Hugo Boss and Other High-Profile Brands
Writing for Bookforum, Jon Caramanica said: “When Sorrenti shot for magazine assignments, he struck a similar note of reluctance—his models cover their faces or turn away and stare at the floor. In one shoot, he put skaters in suits, then photographed them in motion, as if for Thrasher. (In a magazine spread shown in the [2018 documentary film “See Know Evil”] there are fashion credits for Hugo Boss and Bergdorf Goodman, and also Supreme and Zoo York—a mélange like this might be relatively common now, but at the time, it was novel.)” A very famous “heroin chic” image of Kate Moss for Calvin Klein has often been misattributed to Davide, but was, in fact, shot by his brother Mario.
Photographic Style and Aesthetic
As Davide Sorrenti began to work in increasingly higher-profile commercial and editorial areas, his “street” cred never paled. Writing for Indie, Harriet Shepherd said: “…where Mario and Vanina’s work spoke of high fashion, Davide’s personal portraits captured the grit of inner-city life, embodying the same ineffable NYC grunge immortalized in Larry Clark’s Kids. Skaters, graffiti artists, and delinquent down-and-outers, his photographs captured the essence of mid-90s New York youth culture and of his own life in the process. Founding his own brand, Danücht (responsible for that [“Models Suck”] t-shirt) and lensing life on the streets, it wasn’t long before the young photographer caught the attention of the fashion industry, and began lending his street life edge to [it].
But behind the hedonistic revelries of New York’s creative youth lay something darker—and it took Sorrenti’s early death to bring such issues firmly to the fore. Following her son’s passing, Francesca Sorrenti embarked on a mission to raise awareness about the danger of drugs, and
their glamorization through the heroin chic aesthetic Davide had become the poster child for. Her activism led Elite Model Management founder John Casablancas to admit live on CNN, that a drug problem was ravaging the fashion industry.”
And, as Liam Hess Detailed in The Face: ”In one of the most recognized images by the late photographer Davide Sorrenti of his girlfriend Jaime King, she is sprawled across a sofa, cigarette smoldering, hands pulling at her ripped tights. The spaghetti straps of her top frame her emaciated figure. Her clavicles and gangly arms appear shockingly thin. It wasn’t an outtake from an intimate night at home – though that is where much of the pair’s image-making occurred – but a photo that was actually published in a mid-90s issue of the fashion magazine Detour. It spat in the eye of the conventional female beauty du jour – the busty glamazon supermodels on every billboard and in every magazine spread.
By this point, the “3rd summer of love” – promised by The Face in a strapline accompanying Corrine Day’s iconic 1993 cover of a teenage Kate Moss on the beach – had firmly arrived. And it wasn’t a warm and welcoming summer, either; it was instead marked by the nihilism of the grunge movement’s insidious creep into mainstream culture, largely via the music of Nirvana and films like The Basketball Diaries and Larry Clark’s Kids. But just as quickly as the trend ignited the creative fires of some of the fashion industry’s biggest names (Marc Jacobs’ collection for Perry Ellis, for one), it was snuffed out. In hindsight, it’s clear that much of the reason for grunge’s rapid demise was the movement’s destructive bedfellow: heroin chic.
Even if it’s in the tabloid media’s nature to always pin the blame on a specific culprit, identifying the genesis of heroin chic in the fashion world is near impossible. And those who were
furthering its aesthetic merits largely didn’t mean to. Leonardo DiCaprio told Detour in 1996 that he made The Basketball Diaries to “help make some kind of statement against heroin.” On the contrary, it only helped to glamourize the trend.”
Davide Sorrenti Post-Mortem
Conflict Around Heroin Chic Movement
While the phenomenon had been rampant in pop culture and fashion imagery for years, the term “heroin chic” really wasn’t born until after Davide Sorrenti’s death. At Sorrenti’s wake, Interview editor Ingrid Sischy said: “This is heroin, this isn’t chic. This has got to stop, this heroin chic.” At the time, the presence of heroin in Sorrenti’s body led to an incorrect conclusion that he had died of an overdose.
In her excellent 2001 essay, “Embodying Withdrawal: Abjection and the Popularity of Heroin Chic”, Mary Rizzo writes:
“The fashion industry, with its array of models, magazines, and photographers, has been under serious attack in recent years for its portrayal of women, which groups like Adbusters and About-Face  see as leading to eating disorders, poor self-image, violence against women and drug use. These first and last accusations are leveled most heavily at the style of fashion photography known as "heroin chic," which displays, without airbrushing or heavy cosmetics, the extremely thin faces and bodies of female and male models in withdrawn poses and in urban settings. These attributes, which are exaggerated almost to the point of absurdity, are seen as invoking drug use, earning the style its name. The backlash against heroin chic even gained support from former President Bill Clinton, who proclaimed that "the glorification of heroin is not creative, it's destructive; it's not beautiful, it is ugly. And this is not about art, it's about life and death."
“When fashion magazine editors, clothing stores, and designers realized that young "hip" people with disposable incomes felt that they were alienated, they yearned to find ways to appeal to them. But it was these market segments in particular that had become increasingly savvy about advertising and inured to its claims.  To combat this, the fashion industry decided that "an arrest of vision is required at all costs—even at the expense of accentuating the alien quality of the clothing itself."  This arrest of vision was achieved by turning to the styles of the fashion and art photography of the 1970s for inspiration. While both genres were characterized by gritty realism, the art photography centered on images of the poor and socially marginalized, including drug addicts and transsexuals, while fashion photography placed models in scenarios evocative of violence and sexuality. Heroin chic brings these two strands together by placing models in situations evocative of poverty and drug use and photographing them in a realistic style.”
“With aesthetic roots in the realist mode made famous by such artists as Jacob Riis and Margaret Bourke-White, art photography in the 1970s differed from this tradition through its emphasis on scenes of intimacy and the politics of private life.  Nan Goldin's work is exemplary. Goldin rose to prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s, becoming known for her realistic photographs of her friends, which spawned a traveling slide show called "The Ballad of Sexual Dependency," three books, and a number of exhibitions at major art museums throughout the country. The friends in these pictures included drag queens, drug users, and a host of young people living on the edges of poverty. These dejected figures were posed in seedy settings and seemed more like snapshots than composed art. As Goldin wrote in the book that accompanied the "Ballad of Sexual Dependency," ‘I don't select people in order to photograph them; I photograph directly from my life.’”
“The question to ask is how these images of abjection and withdrawal create a desire for goods in their largely female viewers. I have contended throughout this essay that heroin chic is part of a tradition of romantic representations of life on the edge, denoted through risky activities like drug taking, and/or living on the margins of poverty. This poor heroin user is a fascinating and authentic "other" to the middle-class consumer.  As Dick Hebdige has noted, this other is "untouched by the dreary conventions which tyrannized more fortunate members of society."  Media reports of extensive heroin use by photographers and fashion models suggest that these photos are informed by some real knowledge of what life on the edge is like. At the same time, though, the viewer is aware that this is a staged scene populated by paid models that is designed to look authentic, but not be authentic: they are not news photographs or documentary footage.”
With Sorrenti’s death, the newly coined heroin chic era also died. Journalist Amy Spindler called the death “like a small bomb going off” in terms of its effect on the trend. “ ''The point of Davide's death is that it's highlighted a problem,'' said the editor of I-D, Terry Jones. Detour's style director, Long Nguyen, said, ''With Davide's death and the mess of this look, we realized how powerful fashion pictures are.’'
My Beutyfull Lyfe
Published in 2021, “My Beutyfull Life” is the third David Sorrenti book. The “major monograph” consists of drawings and sketches from Sorrenti’s notebooks, photos, and tear sheets, and was edited by his mother Francesca. Prior editions of the photographer’s works include “Polaroids” (2019) and “Argue/SKE 1994 - 1997” (2020).
The main text in the book is by Detour's then-art director, Long Nguyen: “Davide came to the magazine office for the first time one afternoon in mid-December 1995. At first, I thought he was a delivery boy. He had a thick notebook of pictures and drawings with him and told me the personal stories of how these visuals came about. It was like getting to know someone immediately, not through spoken words, not through the length and breadth of time spent, but through a series of pictures and drawings that seemed random at first but were, in fact, like the words of an autobiography.”
Charlie Curran and “See Know Evil”
After tenacious persistence, director Charlie Curran received an interview suggestion list of twenty-five people from Francesca Sorrenti that accompanied the permission and formed the basis for his 2018 documentary about Davide Sorrenti, “See Know Evil”. Writing for Dazed Magazine, Jake Hall wrote: “Now, over 20 years later, See Know Evil peels back the layers of inaccuracy and reframes [Sorrenti’s] work through the lens of his lifelong illness, and the passion it sparked within him to maximize his time on earth. From his iconic ‘Models Suck’ tee to his haunting portraits of Jaime King, Davide’s life and work are pieced together to tell his story; the results are inspiring and occasionally hilarious, but ultimately heartbreaking.”
“Motion Capture - Davide Sorrenti’s photographs of his ‘90s New York crew”
Review: “ARGUESKE 1994-1997 by Davide Sorrenti”
“‘Heroin chic’ and the tangled legacy of photographer Davide Sorrenti”
May 23, 2019
The New York Times
“A Death Tarnishes Fashion’s ‘Heroin Look’”
Amy M. Spindler
May 20, 1997
Bird in Flight
“Hero on Heroin: Life and Death of Davide Sorrenti
May 18, 2020
“Davide Sorrenti’s fashion photography remains beautiful but misunderstood” Dal Chodha
November 18, 2021
“Davide Sorrenti’s Mother Reflects on Her Late Son, Whose Photography She’s Anthologized in a New Book”
November 5, 2019
“‘’My life sucks, my life is beautiful’: reframing Davide Sorrenti’s legacy”
Review: “My Beutyfull Life”
November 25, 2021
“Francesca Sorrrenti on the rise and demise of heroin chic”
June 11, 2019
“Davide Sorrenti ArgueSKE 1994-1997 - Documenting your own life”
Interview with Francesca Sorrenti
December 17, 2019
“From Dirty Realism to Heroin Chic: How Fashion Becomes a Scapegoat for Cultural Anxieties”
Jenna D. Ledford
“Embodying Withdrawal: Abjection and the Popularity of Heroin Chic” Michigan Feminist Studies
Vol. 115, 2001
“Reframing the life and work of pioneering 90s photographer Davide Sorrenti” Jake Hull
January 24, 2019
Product description: “My Beutyfull Life”
Review: “See Know Evil”
January 24, 2019