Lise Sarfati, Review “She” by Sean O’Hagan

The Guardian, 3 Feb – The Observer, 5-6 Feb.

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.”

I completed a Masters in Russian at the Sorbonne, in Paris. I learned to photograph by myself, reading
books and through my professional practice at the Académie des Beaux-Arts. I studied film on my own, if
you can call it studying, by going to see movies like those by Dziga Vertov, Jean Eustache, Robert Bresson,
Pier Paolo Pasolini, Alain Resnais. I spent a year in Aix en Provence and worked in a gallery that only exhibited
photography. Then I was hired by the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris (Institute de France) and I did
all the photographs for their exhibit catalogues. I reproduced master paintings by Monet, Dali and others.
The notion of “instability” is a constant here, as are the behavioural fault lines and tremors that run like
invisible currents though the generations. Of the four, Sloane is the most traditionally photogenic, and the
one whose portraits most resemble film stills. One could easily imagine her haunting a David Lynch movie
in the manner of Patricia Arquette in Lost Highway. Her sister, Sasha, appears only twice, and seems the
most ill at ease with Sarfati’s camera. When I walked around the show with Sarfati last week, she told me
that all the women were difficult to photograph because they remained constantly suspicious of the
camera’s gaze, as well they might.

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 1960s and 70s. 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.

Sean O’Hagan