Quentin Bajac “Life stills” – Translation L.S Torgoff
Lise Sarfati Austin, Texas. Fashion Magazine 2008
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 1850s, 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
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
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. Whereas 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
In considering this ensemble, it seems appropriate to cite other American references, particularly Cindy
Sherman’s work, such as her 1970s 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.