Photographs by Lise Sarfati
Twin Palms, 2012
Reviewed by Daniel W Coburn
Lise Sarfati makes beautiful photographs of beautiful women. Her latest monograph, She, presents a series of archetypal female characters occupying a variety of domestic spaces and landscapes. There are images of a lovely brunette scouring the sidewalks of an urban thoroughfare, a brooding femme fatale wandering topless in the desert, a striking blonde drinking a martini in her underwear, and the classic girl next door, daydreaming in her bedroom. It is difficult to ascertain what Sarfati wants her audience to experience by looking at these portraits. Are these her lovers? Her friends? Her family? Self portraits or a fantasy of women she would like to be? Does this work have some sort of political agenda? Is Sarfati laying the groundwork for a feminist critique of these stereotypes? The answers don’t appear to be within the images, which are lovely, well crafted, but vague in intention.
Quentin Bajac's epilogue, The Anti-Family Album, provides some clues and is an essential compliment to Sarfati's collection of images. He reveals that the women that Sarfati photographed are related, and while their hair color and costumes change dramatically, there are only four: a mother, her two daughters, and her sister. Bajac describes 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." Bajac's analysis and understanding of the work makes sense, but I agree that the album is in fact broken. There is a tremendous fissure between what is represented in the photographs and the underlying concept. None of the characters in Sarfati's narrative interact with one another. They are presented as singular, independent entities, seemingly introspective, but relatively vapid. We learn nothing bout these women or their real lives. Bajac maintains that Sarfati is giving her audience "embryo's of fiction." His comment suggests that the strength of this work lies in it's strong implied narrative, but my worry is that the work might be too ambiguous.
Sarfati's technique for making images references the language of cinema. All of the models are photographed in natural light, but the images possess a dramatic quality that could be compared to paintings by Edward Hopper or film noir. Sarfati's compositions leave something to be desired, with each figure placed in the center of the frame. The models rarely engage the photographer's lens. They seem disoriented or caught in a state of deep contemplation, encouraging the viewer to think of them as being lost, confused, or lonely. A set of close-up portraits that appear later in the sequence echo the early film-still images by Cindy Sherman. The women appear fearful, as if they are being watched or stalked. This portrayal of woman as victim is troublesome since Sarfati doesn't seem to be concerned with making a political or social statement.
This oversized coffee table book is bound in linen and wrapped in a white dust jacket. It contains 52 stunning color reproductions of Sarfati's images. I enjoyed this monograph because it represents an unapologetic amalgam of truth and fiction, but I feel Sarfati and her contributor are attempting to transform the work into something that it's not. I would recommend this book to those that enjoy photographs straddling the line between document and drama, in the vein of Philip-Lorca diCorcia or Gregory Crewdson.