LONDON, ENGLAND.- The Photographers' Gallery presents Lise Sarfati - The American Series, on view through July 31, 2005. French photographer, Lise Sarfati (b. 1958), first came to prominence with her photographs made in Russia in her evocative book Acta Est (2000). As a record of intense experiences of post-Soviet decay, and the brutal bohemia of the lives that she moved through and revisited, the book proved that Sarfati was a sensitive and imaginative observer. An observer of post-apocalyptic, decaying industrial sites, metaphors of chronic loss and waste, shown alongside elliptical portrayals of physically and socially ostracised young people.
Though undeniably photo-documentary in nature, Sarfatis work is defined through an opposition to the editorial urge to fix narratives to her subjects. Her images create a loose, layered and intensely rich visual project that allows us, the viewers, to consider the complexities of any place or time, triggering emotions and thoughts that move well beyond the ostensible subjects of her photographs. Sarfatis importance in todays debates about the role and visual languages of socially engaged photography also rests in her resistance to fully objectify the subjects that compel her to make imagery.
In this exhibition of 50 photographs and 69 slides, her choice to record young people in Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, Oregon and California, on the cusp of adult responsibility, could be construed as the latest addition to contemporary photographys familiar interest with this highly photogenic stage of human life. However, Sarfati avoids patronising her subjects: her curiosity with, and projection onto, the young people that she met in shopping malls and on streets in America is not intended to be a nostalgic road trip. The American Series began with intense research and preparation before any pictures were made, though this fluid and substantial body of work was made on only two journeys to America.
This series represents one of those rare experiences for photographers that is impossible to simulate or confidently repeat, where the photographs almost just happened. Sarfati did not overtly choreograph her young subjects and, instead, was carried by her own adage that by creating, she was exploring and understanding them. While her presence acted upon these young people, she also created the psychological space for them, in turn, to act upon her and to act up or down for the camera.
This perhaps accounts for Sarfatis success in re-presenting American young people as, simply, individually and universally the carriers of states of minds. Her acute compositional sense combined with an instinctive feel for colour, texture and contrast create a physical and psychological space which is both engaging and, ultimately, elusive.