Davide Sorrenti, “A Bird Tattoo” (1996), color analogue, 17.67 x 13.94 inches (all images courtesy of The Davide Sorrenti Archive)

Jade Berreau can’t remember whether it was her idea to stand with her back to the camera or Davide’s. She poses against a seamless purple backdrop. Her arms are wrapped around her back and her head is lowered to reveal the faint line of a bird tattooed on the back of her neck. It was 1996. Davide was shooting a Marc Jacobs editorial for Detour magazine. She thinks he must have suggested the pose, because he photographed other models from that angle. “I do remember really loving that idea,” she tells me.

We’re talking about Our Beutyfull Future, Davide Sorrenti’s solo exhibition at CC Projects. Berreau is the director of the gallery, which Havana Lafitte and Tyrone Lebon opened in April in a basement on the Lower East Side. “I really wanted a space that was not a street-level, white box,” says Berreau. “I wanted something a little more mysterious.” The current exhibition features intimate portraits by Davide Sorrenti, who died in 1997 at the age of 20. Alongside Sorrenti’s journals and other artifacts, the images reveal the artist’s enthusiasm, swagger, and gift for nurturing the distinctive style of ’90s youth culture.

Berreau was 19 or 20 when she met Sorrenti through his older sister, Vanina. “I was hanging out at their mother’s house and there was Davide, who was 17 years old at the time. I was wearing this little jean jacket,” she remembers, “and he thought it was really cool. He opened the jacket and tagged the inside of it!”

Davide Sorrenti, “Firefly” (1996), color analogue, 11 x 14 inches

Sorrenti captured the currents of hip hop, skater, grunge, and rave culture that flourished downtown on the street and in clubs, before being absorbed by fashion, music, and entertainment industries. His graffiti crew, SKE (“See Know Evil,” or, alternately, “Some Kids Envy” or “Some Kids Excel”) appears in exhibition photographs. The kids vamping on couches or cruising on skateboards—antic or moody, supremely self-conscious or self-forgetting—are starting to think about making moves, maybe, making names for themselves, abandoning the hang out for the hustle. They had an instinct for branding, evident in their moniker (pronounced ski), in Sorrenti’s ubiquitous tag (ARGUE), and in the crew’s streetwear label Danücht (“Models Suck”).

Of course, Sorrenti didn’t think models sucked. Along with the tough posturing of his crew, the exhibition includes the langorous expressions of model and actress Milla Jovovich, reclining on a rooftop in a party dress or peering through a window like a louche 19th-century ghost. Sorrenti’s girlfriend, model Jaime King, is nearly beatific in thin, listless deshabille. These images, which seem to relish idle time—the flare of a blunt or the sun’s glare on two friends waiting for a train—perhaps belie the aspirations of these teenagers. In the midst of an economic boom and the expansion of celebrity culture, Sorrenti captured the instant before the model becomes the celebrity, before the club kids become VIPs and the crew turns into a start-up or empire.

“It’s almost utopian, isn’t it?” I tell Berreau. The exhibition’s title names something that doesn’t exist. Isn’t that what the utopian impulse is about? Even if the vision is never realized, it gives us a way of seeing the present and recognizing what’s missing. The phrase, Berreau tells me, comes from one of Sorrenti’s journals. “I always thought of it as full of beauty,” she says, “with an emphasis on the word full. But then again, if you look at how it’s spelled so wrong—it’s actually full of shit!”

I imagine the artist rushing to get his feeling down on the page, unencumbered by the rules of spelling or grammar. “And, of course, there’s a sadness to the title,” Berreau says, “because he knew that he didn’t necessarily have a future like the rest of us.”

Davide Sorrenti, “Davide in Venice” (1996), cibachrome print, 25.5 x 25.5 inches

Sorrenti was born with an inherited blood disorder, thalassemia, which required weekly blood transfusions and contributed to his early death. Despite his illness—or perhaps because of it—his photographs reveal his vitality, tenderness, and sense of humor. His family often appears in his pictures, in intimate spaces like the bedroom or bathroom, or at close-range on an elevator. In a series shot in Venice with his sister, he mugs for the camera, wearing a white undershirt and red leather coat. Though he’s laughing and playful in many of the frames, “This one stood out to me,” she says of “Davide in Venice” (1996), included in the show. “It’s this serene moment with his eyes closed, which feels set apart.” The photographer’s curiosity and capacity for self-reflection is evident in a video interview, also in the exhibition. “I just want to know everything about everything kind of,” the 18-year-old tells us. “I just want to have total understanding of things.”

Born into a family of photographers—his mother Francesca Sorrenti and siblings Mario and Vanina have all made their mark on the fashion industry—Davide picked up a camera at a young age. “He always walked with his Leica,” Francesca told me on the day I visited the gallery. As co-curator of the exhibiton, she explained that the camera was an instrument of his affections and a tool for performing what he thought was “cool.” There was no division, really, between his personal and professional interests.

Style director Long Nguyen has written about the day Sorrenti showed up at his office at Detour magazine with a thick notebook of pictures and drawings: “It was like getting to know someone immediately, not through the 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 words of an autobiography.” Soon, Sorrenti was booking jobs for Detour and other alternative magazines, like Ray Gun and i-D.

For Berreau, who worked as a model for seven years, a Sorrenti shoot was different from those of other photographers. “I had so much trust in him. You never felt like you were walking through the door and suddenly everything was transformed. You just felt like you were hanging out with Davide.” The documentary approach to commercial images, embodied in Sorrenti’s photos, signaled a broader shift in fashion photography during the ’90s. As independent curator Charlotte Cotton has documented in her book Imperfect Beauty, the turn toward representing “imaginative consumers who incorporated fashion into their own lives” was pioneered in Britain by stylists such as Melanie Ward and photographers Corinne Day, Glen Luchford, and Juergen Teller. In the US, Mario Sorrenti and his younger brother Davide also subverted the aspirational fantasies of fashion by situating it within the lives of consumers. This new emphasis on the consumer anticipated the user-generated platforms of networked space.

“His point of view,” Berreau says, “was that the scenes he was shooting didn’t need to be fake. It could just be real people who already had a sense of fashion and style and beauty and intimacy. He was drawn to people that he had a connection with, and I think that’s what made his fashion pictures attractive.” In “Anthony On the Tracks” (1996), one of Sorrenti’s crew stands on the subway tracks in designer threads, with a moving train behind his back. The blurred motion is hard to read. Is the train coming or going? Commissioned by a fashion magazine, the prankish image alludes to the perils of urban life and the daily performances staged in public space, which gain urgency and shape from the presence of the camera. In the context of Sorrenti’s brief, glimmering life, the photograph shudders with apprehension.

Our Beutyfull Future continues at CC Projects (431 East 6th Street, Manhattan) through July 28th.

Nicole Miller is a writer, editor, and educator living in New York City. She writes fiction and criticism and teaches creative writing at NYU's School of Professional Studies.