Life stills, Quentin Bajac

Lise Sarfati, Austin, Texas, Fashion Magazine, 2008

Translated by L.S. Torgoff

Whatever you do, don’t say the word fash­ion.” But nev­er­the­less, we show up in a car with a styl­ist and a trunk full of fash­ion items we’ll unpack later, under a blaz­ing sun. We’re back in Austin, Texas, known ter­ri­tory. Even if they’re not always famil­iar, the streets, col­ors and faces pro­duce a cer­tain feel­ing of déjà vu. Back in Austin, a city with its own dis­tinct rules, rit­u­als and endur­ing under­ground teenage cul­ture. We run into girls who’ve posed for you before. They haven’t changed much; they’re just slightly older, some of them about to emerge from ado­les­cence, oth­ers already women. A few have left – we’ll go all the way to California to shoot one of them. Later we’ll meet new girls, by chance on the streets and through friends. In turn, they, too, will pose for you. It’s just like five years ago, in 2003, only a lit­tle dif­fer­ent, like a slightly mod­i­fied repli­ca­tion of what we did then.

So we never talk about fash­ion. A way of dis­tanc­ing your­self from a world where you don’t nec­es­sar­ily feel at home, of not get­ting the mod­els too psy­ched up, and, finally and above all, of not too hastily defin­ing a ter­ri­tory with its stereo­types and habits. To give it a name would mean cir­cum­scrib­ing a prac­tice in advance – lock­ing in it. That’s how it’s always been with Lise Sarfati. She seems reluc­tant to put what she does into words, except in neg­a­tive terms: this isn’t fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phy, she explains. So what is it? Fulllength por­traits? Why not? We shouldn’t let the mod­els’ lack of expres­sion con­fuse us. These pho­tos have a highly soci­o­log­i­cal dimen­sion, and are infused with psy­cho­log­i­cal con­tent. But that term is too aes­thet­i­cally freighted, too linked to other kinds of art and other, older prac­tices, to be appro­pri­ate here. Should we call them fig­ure stud­ies,” in the sense of the old term for what was once con­sid­ered a genre in itself? Maybe that would be more accu­rate. Each of these pho­tos lit­er­ally records the dis­tance between a body and the space that sur­rounds it, and in that way, metaphor­i­cally (and this time very con­sciously) con­structs a rela­tion­ship between the model and the world around her. In the chore­og­ra­phy of the bod­ies, these shots of teenagers, whether taken in Moscow, Ikcha, Saint Petersburg, Vilnius, Berkeley, Oakland or Austin, con­vey a feel­ing of being out of phase with the world. Obvious or sug­gested, play­ful, painful or indif­fer­ent, this sense, often bor­der­ing on an absence from the world, is what all the mod­els have in com­mon. In this account, ado­les­cence is a con­stant state of becom­ing. These teenage girls resist any attempt to pin them down, and pose an awe­some chal­lenge to the act of pho­to­graph­i­cally record­ing them.

All these girls are located simul­ta­ne­ously in the here and now of the pic­ture and an inde­fin­able else­where. This fun­da­men­tal ubiq­uity is, to my mind, the rea­son for Sarfati’s inter­est in young mod­els. She likes to cite Gombrowicz and his fond­ness for the con­cept of imma­tu­rity-​a secret revolt, a silent refusal, a game played with life and real­ity, and espe­cially the idea of a sub­ject both mal­leable and yet elu­sive, who always, in the end, slips away. Thus the idea of ado­les­cence as a ter­ri­tory we’ve all explored but that now remains beyond our reach and com­pre­hen­sion. If all por­trai­ture can be con­ceived as a con­fronta­tion between var­i­ous selves (the social self, the pri­vate self – here we recall Barthes’ words, In front of the cam­era I am simul­ta­ne­ously who I think I am and who I’d like peo­ple to think I am”), with teenage mod­els this con­fronta­tion takes on a unique dimen­sion.

This basic dimen­sion, present in her pre­vi­ous series, reap­pears here as well. This is not work with ama­teur mod­els done in the name of a search for some truth or other, real life” con­trasted to the sup­pos­edly arti­fi­cial world of fash­ion. That’s already been done a hun­dred times, some­times suc­cess­fully, and there’s not much rea­son to do it again. Of far more inter­est here is the very close, very pow­er­ful inter­nal link between this new set of pho­tos and Sarfati’s pre­vi­ous work, par­tic­u­larly the pic­tures she made in sev­eral American cities, includ­ing Austin, pub­lished in her 2005 book The New Life. Actually, what most attracts our eye and our atten­tion is exactly this prox­im­ity, the odd impres­sion that with this Fashion Magazine com­mis­sion Sarfati con­sciously went back to the same sites she pho­tographed before, to redo what she did five years ago. Like a throb­bing feel­ing of déjà vu, a stut­ter­ing in time, look­ing at these pho­tos is like the expe­ri­ence of meet­ing some­one you think you know and at the same time feel­ing con­fused because the appar­ently famil­iar face seems to have slightly changed.

These girls aren’t exactly the same. Obviously the fact that an iden­ti­cal rep­e­ti­tion is impos­si­ble is not the only rea­son. The mod­els from last time have got­ten older and changed; oth­ers have replaced them. New set­tings and inte­ri­ors have suc­ceeded the old ones. But more, Sarfati’s approach itself has also slightly shifted. Adolescence is a period of con­stant role-​play­ing, of being tra­versed by mul­ti­ple, con­tra­dic­tory and fleet­ing iden­ti­ties assumed one after another depend­ing on the inter­locu­tor, often dra­mat­i­cally con­trast­ing. Teenagers are insin­cere by def­i­n­i­tion, and how they dress is a priv­i­leged mode of expres­sion of that insin­cer­ity. Sarfati knows that and plays with it. Sheathed in new clothes, these mod­els are no longer com­pletely them­selves. Now they’re act­ing, undoubt­edly a lit­tle more today than at other times. They’re not just wear­ing a dif­fer­ent pair of shoes, blouse or dress. They’ve slipped into a dif­fer­ent skin – they become some­one else. The artist’s inter­est in the fig­ure of the dou­ble, man­i­fested by the pres­ence of nar­cis­sis­tic mir­ror reflec­tions and the motif of sis­ters, accen­tu­ates, in many of these pic­tures, this impres­sion of a copy or a dou­ble.

Despite the geo­graphic and tem­po­ral dis­tance that sep­a­rates Sarfati’s work from that of the Victorian pho­tog­ra­pher Lady Hawarden, when you see the latter’s tableaux vivants, with their inde­ter­mi­nate con­tent, made in her London apart­ment in the 1850’s, it’s hard not to draw a par­al­lel. Both women use sim­i­lar ele­ments and arti­fices in an attempt to define the respec­tive ter­ri­to­ries of child­hood, ado­les­cence and adult wom­an­hood, and to record pos­si­ble becom­ings. If we had to add a more con­tem­po­rary fil­i­a­tion, per­haps we should look to the Yale school, a tra­di­tion very much in the American spirit, ini­tially dom­i­nated by the doc­u­men­tary style of Walker Evans, that later evolved towards a more pro­nounced the­atri­cal­ity with pho­tog­ra­phers like Phillip Lorca diCor­cia (and even more with Gregory Crewdson). The images in Sarfati’s cur­rent series, with their restrained nar­ra­tive and sub­tly sug­gested stag­ing, can be sit­u­ated some­where in that neigh­bor­hood.

This the­atri­cal­ity is in no way osten­ta­tious or sim­ply fab­ri­cated. In that sense, many of these pho­tos could have eas­ily appeared in The New Life. Yet the sim­ple choice of a dif­fer­ent, exte­rior item of cloth­ing imper­cep­ti­bly shifts them else­where, detaches them just slightly from their quo­tid­ian con­text, as if the nor­mal course of events had gone off track just a lit­tle. There’s no obvi­ous dis­par­ity or man­ner­ist dis­so­nance between the cloth­ing, the model and her envi­ron­ment in these pho­tos. The con­trast between the sophis­ti­ca­tion of cer­tain getups and the mid­dle class real­ity of American sub­ur­bia is there, but it’s totally unla­bored. The cloth­ing always seems to have been cho­sen to match the model, and the logic is one of verisimil­i­tude-​each young woman projects a char­ac­ter she has cho­sen, but remains com­pletely in har­mony with her own nat­ural con­text and set­ting. In accord with Sarfati’s pho­to­graphic maieu­tics, they’re all full par­tic­i­pants in the final photo’s mise en scène, in what the artist calls a rit­ual made new and dif­fer­ent every time.” The shot is more the result of an exchange than the dom­i­na­tion of a sub­ject by a cam­era oper­a­tor.”

Thus the change induced by the apparel has noth­ing in com­mon with meta­mor­pho­sis. It is even imper­cep­ti­ble some­times. In any case, the cloth­ing never seems to be a dis­guise under which the model dis­ap­pears. Shoes with exag­ger­at­edly high heels, a slightly too sophis­ti­cated blouse, a print that’s not quite appro­pri­ate, a lit­tle too much makeup-all these are furtive signs that serve, for the atten­tive viewer, as sig­nals, as punc­tums, to use Barthes’ term, that ren­der the real slightly uncer­tain. Here cloth­ing is never more than an acces­sory, lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively. Incidental and in many of these pho­tos sec­ondary, still it turns out to be totally nec­es­sary to the crys­tal­liza­tion of the fic­tion, the ele­ment that allows the viewer to access a pos­si­ble nar­ra­tive.

Sarfati is fully con­scious of the fic­tional pull that is more pro­nounced in this work then pre­vi­ously. When talk­ing about these girls, she usu­ally refers to them as char­ac­ters. She calls the styl­ist who accom­pa­nies her a cos­tumer. These slips reveal what’s going on here, which becomes obvi­ous in the lay­out choices when the pho­tos are arranged into mag­a­zine spreads. Where as The New Life empha­sized iso­lated moments, offer­ing a frag­mented, kalei­do­scopic vision in which cer­tain mod­els reap­pear sev­eral times in the course of the book, here she opts for a more sequen­tial approach, a series of con­sec­u­tive pho­tos, each of a dif­fer­ent girl, in which every shot could be a movie still. This rein­forces the open­ness to nar­ra­tive. As the pages go by, the mod­els increas­ingly assume the sta­tus of char­ac­ters and one short story fol­lows another. Further, the for­mat is like that of a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, the kind where the impor­tant part is what’s not said, like in a Raymond Carter book. The ensem­ble is inter­cut with other images, which, we real­ize lit­tle by lit­tle, are ads. Obeying, in their for­mal choices, the same rules as pho­tos of fash­ion mod­els, they don’t inter­rupt the visual con­tin­uum but nonethe­less act like short inter­mis­sions – still pho­tos, still lifes – between two nar­ra­tive takes.

In con­sid­er­ing this ensem­ble, it seems appro­pri­ate to cite other American ref­er­ences, par­tic­u­larly Cindy Sherman’s work, such as her 1970’s Film Stills. In an oeu­vre thor­oughly marked by the dis­guis­ing and stag­ing of the self, Sherman has repeat­edly taken an inter­est in fash­ion and the aes­thet­ics of fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phy, notably in the Fashion series (1983−84 and 1993 – 94), Pink Robes (1994) and her more com­mer­cial and recent work for Balenciaga in 2007. But this Sarfati series has more in com­mon with the Stills than Sherman’s fash­ion-​ori­ented pro­duc­tion. While the pieces in this ensem­ble, with their fic­tional charge, do seem like stills, the fic­tion here is of an entirely dif­fer­ent qual­ity, less epic, stripped of artis­tic and filmic ref­er­ences, less crit­i­cal and ref­er­en­tial, in a way less post­mod­ern. Whereas Sherman’s pseudo set pho­tog­ra­phy evokes post-war clas­sic movies (with lead­ing lady types rang­ing from Italian neo­re­al­ism to Hollywood), Sarfati’s images offer a more mod­est and ver­nac­u­lar fic­tion anchored in the quo­tid­ian of the com­fort­able mid­dle class American way of life. A sort of nar­ra­tive sketch, nei­ther baroque nor extrav­a­gant, in which fash­ion items, by intro­duc­ing a sub­tle per­tur­ba­tion in rela­tion to her pre­vi­ous series, serve as the vehi­cle or even the det­o­na­tor. As if, quite lit­er­ally and con­sciously, Sarfati had opted to revisit her pre­vi­ous work, a kind of cos­tumed remake of The New Life.