Review, Sean O’Hagan

The Guardian, 3 February 2012

Lise Sarfati is a French pho­tog­ra­pher who lived and worked in Russia for 10 years before relo­cat­ing to California in 2003. To date, her sub­jects have tended to be ado­les­cents and her colour por­traits, which often resem­ble film stills, evoke the strange sense of sus­pended time between youth and adult­hood. Sarfati’s obses­sion with the inner lives of the young and dis­lo­cated is not, of itself, any­thing new: both Rineke Dijkstra and Larry Clark have explored sim­i­lar ter­rain. But Sarfati’s pho­tographs, though decep­tively sim­ple on first view­ing, have a mys­te­ri­ous qual­ity that is to do, in part, with her deft merg­ing of por­trai­ture, snap­shot and arranged tableau.

As a teenager, she stud­ied the films of Robert Bresson, Alain Resnais and the Russian doc­u­men­tary pio­neer and film the­o­rist, Dziga Vertov. Her work, she says, is as much influ­enced by film and by the­o­ret­i­cal thinkers such as Julia Kristeva as by any pho­to­graphic pre­cur­sors. Sarfati, then, is a very French kind of con­cep­tu­al­ist, but, since mov­ing to America, she has sought out small-town com­mu­ni­ties in California, where the pace of life is slow and where she can take the time to famil­iarise her­self with the peo­ple that sub­se­quently become actors in her semi-​chore­o­graphed still-life sce­nar­ios. She refers to them reveal­ingly as char­ac­ters that might exist in a novel”.

This exhi­bi­tion, enti­tled, She, fol­lows on from her other American projects, which include The New Life (2003), Austin, Texas (2008) and On Hollywood (2010). It is set in a run-down area of Oakland, California and fea­tures two mid­dle-​aged women, Christine and Gina, in its small cast. They are sis­ters, as are Sloane and Sasha, Christine’s daugh­ters. In the exhibition’s press release, Sarfati writes: I like dou­bles, like moth­ers and daugh­ters, or sis­ters or reflec­tions. This rep­re­sents my research into women’s iden­ti­ties… I am inter­ested in fix­ing that insta­bil­ity.”

As always, Sarfati does not attempt to cre­ate a nar­ra­tive strand, pre­fer­ring, instead, to hint obliquely at the often dark under­cur­rents in her sub­jects’ lives. Gina, like Sloane, can look like a dif­fer­ent per­son from one por­trait to the next, and her sex­ual iden­tity, too, seems fluid. Christine comes across as some­one who has lived life hard and fast and, in mid­dle age, with two trou­bled teenage daugh­ters, is liv­ing that way still. She is an erst­while Jehovah’s Witness turned dom­i­na­trix, whose ambi­tion is to be a rock star.

In one strik­ing image, she is wear­ing a wed­ding dress and veil, a reminder of a mar­riage that never hap­pened. In another, she is pic­tured top­less in the desert at dusk, her intense gaze look­ing into and beyond the cam­era. This is one of the few instances when Sarfati cap­tures a sub­ject head on, but, again, noth­ing is revealed here except Christine’s oth­er­ness and her sense of iso­la­tion. What Sarfati seems to be aim­ing for is the cap­tur­ing of a state of mind, one which is usu­ally dis­lo­cated, day­dreamy or pre­oc­cu­pied.

The pho­tographs are given an extra layer of unre­al­ness by Sarfati’s use of Kodachrome slide film, which is more syn­ony­mous with fam­ily snap­shots from the 1960’s and 70’s. There are echoes of William Eggleston’s early colour images in some of her land­scapes, but her work is all her own in its evo­ca­tion of a cer­tain kind of sus­pended, and insu­lar, real­ity.
All four women live tough lives in an area where poverty is the norm, but, again, this is sug­gested rather than spelled out. Sarfati’s US pub­lisher, Jack Woody of Twin Palms books, recently said: Lise sees in these women an incred­i­ble endurance, con­fronting their cir­cum­stances across the sur­faces of the indif­fer­ent west­ern land­scape they have come to occupy,” adding: When I look at the women in her pho­tos, I sus­pect in some way they are all self-​por­traits.”

While all this may be true, it is not imme­di­ately appar­ent in the pho­tographs, whose power lies in part in their elu­sive­ness. Interestingly, Sarfati began tak­ing pho­tographs at 13, when she accom­pa­nied her mother,an aca­d­e­mic who was then research­ing a novel on age­ing, to the homes of old women who lived in big, eerily empty apart­ments in Nice. The cam­era may have pro­vided her younger self with a way of deal­ing with these strange encoun­ters. It also, as she said in a recent inter­view, allowed me to cre­ate a fixed image that removed me from real­ity and allowed me to have a dif­fer­ent rela­tion­ship with the world”. That would still seem to be the case, though the child­like won­der has been replaced by a more know­ing gaze that may seem, at first encounter, to be blank and detached, but is any­thing but.