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The New LifeReview - The New Life
La Vie Nouvelle
by Lise Sarfati
Twin Palms, 2005
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Jul 25th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 30)

According to the press release from the Yossi Milo Gallery, in 2003 French photographer traveled on the west coast and some southern states of the USA, taking pictures of young people.  She shows these young adults at home, in yards, in the street, in public parks, and in stores.  They look vacant or preoccupied, staring down or into space, or maybe at the television.  They look sad or troubled.  The pictures don't so much look posed, but more as if the subjects have so many other concerns they just happened to be sitting, standing or lying down doing nothing.  Mostly they are alone, and in the few pictures where there are two people in a room, they do not look like they are talking to each other.  They coexist in silence, apparently.  This seems so unlike most young people that it is quite eerie.  Certainly, teens are moody, but how often do they achieve a melancholy stillness? 

So interpreting Sarfati starts with a question.  Is she trying to make a statement about the USA?  Why did she visit to take these pictures?  Surely France has its share of surly brooding youth?  She gives the impression of a nation of lost youth, directionless and mourning the loss of meaning.  The effect is almost comical, it is so stylized, and some bring to mind Gregory Crewdson or Cindy Sherman because of the sense of something being out of place.

Nevertheless, these pictures have strong dramatic presence.  The composition is strong, and the lighting is atmospheric.  Some of the images are particularly striking.  In "Sasha & Sloan #21," two young women sit on a bed: both have hair dyed black, and blue jeans with metal studded belts.  One gives the other a drag of a cigarette.  There's a guitar case in the back corner, and on the wall at the side are two face masks.  The bedspread is a vibrant red and so are other decorations on the wall, an ashtray on the bedside table and an electrical lead going up to the ceiling.  It is a slightly odd image, and one of the few with a hint of contact between people.  Indeed, one might even speculate that the intimacy between the women on a bed has a sexual connotation.  Similarly color coordinated is Robin #43, with a young black woman sitting on the ground leaning against a blue fence; our view of her is partially obscured by another fence that runs perpendicular to the first.  The ground is dirty and seems to reflect the color of the fence, while a tree is behind the fence, providing cover with its green leaves.  In the very background is partial view of a tall building, almost the same color as the fence.  So the picture feels almost monochromatic, except for the girl in the back shirt, her shoulders hunched, looking uncomfortable.  It is an image with mystery and discomfort.  Some images have lots of details, showing people's homes and teen bedrooms, and they are interesting documents of these lives.  Others are sparse, with blank walls as backgrounds, and these just serve to heighten the sense of isolation of the subject.

Overall then this is an impressive collection stylistically and technically, but the anonymity of the subjects and the uniformity of the mood threatens to make it a one-dimensional work.  There is some variation in approach, and some images hint at playfulness -- for example, in "Sloan #30," the subject is dressed up in a wig and sunglasses -- but such moments are infrequent.  It is tempting to conclude that Sarfati's vision of American youth is bleak, and she is showing a nation sapped of joy.  The title of the work, "The New Life," would on this reading be heavy with irony.  If that is Sarfati's meaning, however, then her work is simplistic and unconvincing, obviously missing the complexities and contradictions of life today for people entering adulthood.  The strongest works here are the ones that pick up on the clash of ideas within these people's lives, and there are enough of these to make this collection of images memorable.

 

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© 2006 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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