The Anti-Family Album, Quentin Bajac

Preface of the book She, Lise Sarfati, Twin Palms Publishers, 2012

Translated by Emiliano Battista

No one is anony­mous in a fam­ily album: as long as the photo’s con­tem­po­raries live, they can name who is there, as well as where and when they were pho­tographed; the image sev­ers lan­guages, while the oral­ity of fic­tions and real­i­ties projects its cap­tion onto the image, when that is not already jot­ted down on its reverse side, an ellip­ti­cal and frag­men­tary nar­ra­tive, a polyphony of voices”. Anne-Marie Garat, Une pas­sion privée

At first sight, we might see She as a fam­ily album whose user man­ual had been lost, as a album miss­ing the nar­ra­tor who could sup­ply us with the keys for how to read it and untan­gle the rela­tion­ships between faces and bod­ies. In sum, as a fam­ily album that has some­how fallen into anonymity. It is com­posed of women who seem to evolve in a sim­i­lar, maybe even a com­mon, envi­ron­ment. We assume the women are related, per­haps even by blood. Determining their exact num­ber requires some cau­tion on our side. How many are they, exactly? Two? Three? Four? Five? Is the blond on this one the brunet on that one? Could they really be the same? Perhaps the brunet some­one else? Or she is the blond, only older, later? Their envi­ron­ment, how­ever, has not changed at all. We look more closely at the images, scru­ti­niz­ing them for rec­og­niz­able signs other than facial struc­tures. The places? They are only of lim­ited help: like the women who inhabit them, their fam­ily resem­blances are deceiv­ing-​they are some­times the same, but often slightly dif­fer­ent. All that’s left, then, are the clothes and tat­toos that, in Lise Sarfati’s work, dis­tin­guish indi­vid­u­als and define their iden­ti­ties bet­ter than any other ele­ment. It seems, then, that there are four women: Christine, Gina, Sloane, and Sasha. So: a woman (Christine), her two daugh­ters (Sloane and Sasha), and her sis­ter (Sloane). Or: a woman (Gina), her nieces (Sloane and Sasha), and her sis­ter (Christine). Or: two young women (Sloane and Sasha), their mother (Christine), and their aunt (Gina)… It’s all a mat­ter of point of view. But the viewer doesn’t know or under­stand much about that at first sight.

A fam­ily album pre­serves only care­fully selected pho­tographs. Out of an entire life, it stores only hand­picked moments, priv­i­leg­ing spe­cial occa­sions, happy ones usu­ally, and con­sign­ing the rest to obliv­ion: happy faces, relaxed moments, places of leisure rather than work. 

It tends to under­line a group’s social links and affec­tive rela­tions, to high­light an iden­tity, a com­mu­nal spirit, a shared life and des­tiny. The por­trait of the cou­ple or group, with all its atten­dant con­ven­tions, is one of its inescapable fig­ures. The fam­ily album tries to reg­is­ter the evo­lu­tion of a par­tic­u­lar human com­mu­nity, to write its story and scan the pas­sage of time with each suc­ceed­ing page. None of this fig­ures in She: instead of a chronol­ogy, time is stopped, it appears to stam­mer and bite its own tail. There is no group photo or desire to stage a col­lec­tive des­tiny, but only iso­lated mod­els and indi­vid­u­als who do not seem to com­mu­ni­cate amongst them­selves, or only barely; no happy moments or pic­turesque places, only indif­fer­ent moments in ordi­nary places; no strong ges­ture, none of the con­ven­tional poses, and no com­plic­ity with the pho­tog­ra­pher. The mod­els pose, but reservedly, more often than not with­out look­ing into the cam­era. And even when we do see their faces, we don’t really seem to see them. They are here, but they are always also there, else­where. When we close the book and think a bit about it, we can­not but see She as the anti-​fam­ily album par excel­lence.

No actors.
(No direct­ing of actors.)
No parts.
(No learn­ing of parts.)
No stag­ing.
But the use of work­ing mod­els, taken from life.
BEING (mod­els) instead of SEEMING (actors).”

Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer

She: the pro­noun des­ig­nates at once the indi­vid­ual and the col­lec­tive. With exem­plary con­cise­ness, Lise Sarfati’s title under­lines the fact that she has worked essen­tially with women mod­els since The New Life; nowa­days, she says, she finds it eas­ier to project her­self onto them.” Projection does not mean expla­na­tion: for much as we may grasp Christine’s, Sloane’s, Sasha’s, and Gina’s soli­tude, we’ll never know any­thing about their dreams. As Lise Sarfati sees it, these four women draw their dra­matic value from their sta­tus as char­ac­ters,” the term she invari­ably uses to des­ig­nate her mod­els. We must not under­stand char­ac­ter” here in the social sense of the term, as when we say that so and so is some­body” to indi­cate that a per­son plays an impor­tant role on the social scene. In that sense of the term, Gina, Sloane, Sasha, and Christine would be bet­ter described as anti-​char­ac­ters, not only because of their vol­un­tar­ily mar­ginal sta­tus, but also because of their evi­dent ret­i­cence towards that which con­structs social char­ac­ter today, namely: the image. They dis­play no nar­cis­sism before the cam­era. Quite the con­trary. The four women do not like being pho­tographed, they take no plea­sure in it; indeed, they take cover from the cam­era, which they only rarely look into it. They resist, and this resis­tance is essen­tial to the pho­tog­ra­pher.

No, Lise Sarfati’s use of the term char­ac­ter draws on its lit­er­ary and dra­matic sense. From her first photo series Acta Est (The Play Is Done), about young adults in the post-Soviet era, Lise Sarfati put her work under the aegis of the the­ater. Her char­ac­ters embody strong roles, roles that are always out­side the norm: they are free char­ac­ters who project them­selves into their fates” and man­i­fest an absolute desire.” However, none of her four char­ac­ters plays out a dra­matic fic­tion. Here as in The New Life, Lise Sarfati does not give us a nar­ra­tive thread; instead, she gives us rather banal things” in the hope that a com­plex ques­tion­ing can be cre­ated out of such banal­i­ties.” She gives us embryos of fic­tion that never come to term; sug­ges­tions-​more than propo­si­tions-​that seem to develop in-between the images rather than within each image, like the unpre­dictable weed grow­ing wild from the grooves between cob­ble­stones.

Each image, how­ever, insists on its role as a sim­u­la­tion and its rejec­tion, which becomes increas­ingly more pro­nounced in Sarfati’s work, of any sort of doc­u­men­tary truth: I have to cre­ate the sit­u­a­tion to arrive at some­thing I don’t know,” she says. The key­word here is sit­u­a­tion. All of the images are sit­u­a­tions, not stag­ings (mises en scène), a term Lise Sarfati rejects. She pits the neu­tral­ity of the sit­u­a­tion-​mean­ing, sim­ply, the set of cir­cum­stances a char­ac­ter finds her­self in at a given moment-against the the­atri­cal­ity of the stag­ing. Lise Sarfati does not want her mod­els (Sloane or Sasha, Gina or Christine) to play or replay, she does not want them to seem, but to be. The resis­tance put up by her mod­els is just as essen­tial there: it seals the link to the Bressonian the­ory of the model, accord­ing to which what is cru­cial, as Bresson him­self puts it, is not what the mod­els show, but what they hide.” 

For Lise Sarfati, this abil­ity to resist and to hide has for a long time been the priv­i­lege of the ado­les­cent and young adult. In this respect, the impor­tance she gives to the char­ac­ters of Christine and Gina, who are older than the mod­els she tends to works with, is some­thing new in her oeu­vre. Nevertheless, the run­ning thread that links She to her ear­lier work is the fig­ure of one of these young adults, her iden­tity still in the process of being built: Sloane, for whom she has a spe­cial lik­ing, and who was the pro­tag­o­nist of her pre­vi­ous project, The New Life. In She, the fam­ily frame­work replaces the gen­er­a­tional frame­work of The New Life. By return­ing to the same model and mak­ing her evolve, Lise Sarfati anchors the model even fur­ther in the lit­er­ary tra­di­tion in which the same fic­tional char­ac­ter reap­pears in dif­fer­ent sto­ries.

Sloane her­self, how­ever, is a vari­ety of char­ac­ters already. Like many of Lise Sarfati’s women char­ac­ters, Sloane has a fetish for clothes. Wearing a wig-now a blonde, now a red­head-​she eludes the attempts to iden­tify her. With Sloane, as with mod­els of she used in Austin, Texas, the vari­ety in cloth­ing is inte­gral to the play of iden­ti­ties. Sloane’s vin­tage dresses sin­gle her out as dif­fer­ent, as out­side the norm; they accen­tu­ate the atem­po­ral char­ac­ter of the images, the recur­ring sense that there is some­thing out of joint about the quaint clothes and inte­ri­ors so rem­i­nis­cent of the archi­tec­ture of a Victorian America immor­tal­ized by Edward Hopper and Walker Evans is out of joint. But, here too, and with­out any sys­tem­atic­ity, many of the images take us back to a decid­edly con­tem­po­rary America. The final impres­sion, then, is of a blur red chronol­ogy akin to that of fan­tas­tic nar­ra­tives, in which the same char­ac­ter coex­ists in dif­fer­ent tem­po­ral peri­ods.

The sequence would form a con­tin­u­ous nar­ra­tive, sim­i­lar to a series of film stills; the series would be the exploita­tion, the exhaus­tion, of a sin­gle idea, a sin­gle object; the suite could be a divis­i­ble” mon­tage of sev­eral pho­tographs that relate some­thing other than them­selves once they’ve been hung, like a mes­sage or a visual cha­rade.” Hervé Guibert, Ghost Image, 1981

Which one of these best fits Lise Sarfati’s approach in She? It is awk­ward to set­tle only for one-a sign of the com­plex­ity of the object. Is it the suite? This model, the least con­strain­ing of the three, fits the work as a whole quite well. The series? Yes, but then we might be tempted to say that She con­tains four dif­fer­ent but inter­twined series. The sequence? This is indeed present-albeit in dis­creetly, in the details-owing to the way two sim­i­lar images are imme­di­ately put into rela­tion­ship, as if they had been shot in con­ti­nu­ity. The work, con­se­quently, appears to stam­mer or stut­ter. Its rhythm seems to slow down, as if it sud­denly paus­ing or lin­ger­ing over par­tic­u­lar moment, at the same time that it seems to speed up, as in those films where the cam­era sud­denly takes off. Let us call it, then, a com­plex set: a pho­to­graphic series (con­cep­tual logic) com­posed of suites at once dis­jointed and inter­twined (indi­vid­ual and spa­tial logic) and gath­ered, now here and now there, as if in a sequence (tem­po­ral logic).

Evidently, the gen­eral move­ment yielded by the work is not reg­u­lar. Lise Sarfati is clearly atten­tive to chang­ing rhythms, to accel­er­a­tion, decel­er­a­tion, syn­co­pa­tion, and so forth. If we had to find a com­po­si­tional model for She, then it seems we would do bet­ter to look to music. A real com­po­si­tion, as if you were mak­ing music”: that is the instruc­tion Lise Sarfati-who has in the past forged rela­tion­ships between image and music-gives to one of the mod­els. Here, though, and to a much greater extent than in the past, the musi­cal par­a­digm devel­ops out of the very struc­ture of the work. Each of the four fig­ures pro­duces a dif­fer­ent melodic line, a dif­fer­ent theme”-which in Greek means that which is set” or placed.” Sloane’s theme may appear to be the dom­i­nant one (she opens and closes the inter­nal unfold­ing of the images), but that does not keep Christine’s, Gina’s, and Sasha’s themes from being devel­oped, even if it is not as evenly and fully fleshed out as Sloane’s. Regardless of the mod­u­la­tions and vari­a­tions these themes undergo once they are set, they always remain rec­og­niz­able, though some­times this demands a bit of effort. If we were to refine this musi­cal model, we would be tempted to see it basi­cally as a con­tra­pun­tal for­mat. Far from min­gling and mutu­ally rein­forc­ing one another, as in the clas­sic tonal sys­tem, each theme pre­serves its inde­pen­dence by not being com­pletely con­t­a­m­i­nated by the oth­ers. Each one remains a per­sonal, sin­gu­lar-​indeed, soli­tary-​des­tiny, in accor­dance with each theme’s con­tra­pun­tal free­dom: She, or the attempt at a poly­phonic, as opposed to har­monic, con­struc­tion of fem­i­nine iden­tity.