“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 directing of actors.)
(No learning of parts.)
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.